Monday, 11 February 2013

A teetotaller’s view on life as an alcohol researcher

Whenever I go out to a pub or bar and decline a drink, people generally think it’s quite strange. What's more, when we talk about jobs and interests it gets worse. When I tell them I conduct research into alcohol and problem drinking they either think I am joking, begin to shuffle nervously and assume I am silently judging them, or perhaps more surprisingly they become generally interested in what I do and start picking my brain.

When I say I study alcohol, I’m only really at the beginning of my research career (well, I hope I am not near the end of it). I recently finished a PhD in at the University of Liverpool investigating disinhibition and cognitive biases in heavy drinkers (you can read some of my published, peer-reviewed research here, here, here and here. Having finished, I decided that research was the job for me, and signed up to three more years as a post-doc on an MRC-funded project that will examine the issues from my PhD in more detail.  When I tell people I don’t drink they assume that my research interests have contributed to my choice, when in fact this isn’t the case.

I’m still not entirely sure what drives my abstinence. I did the usual heavy drinking in my teens. Heading into the city centre tanked up on cheap vodka and someone else’s ID, I had some of the best times (as far as I can remember!).  At the same time, not all of my experiences with alcohol were positive. When I did drink, it wasn’t in moderation and I do not like vomiting! Drinking to get drunk is a strategy adopted by many young people: they drink huge amounts of alcohol not for the taste, but for the effects. Regardless, I think my experiences fit in with the well-established roles for both positive and negative experiences and expectations as determinants of individual differences in alcohol consumption. The idea that something can be pleasurable but can also have negative consequences, and the ambivalence this causes, is what made me interested in studying addiction in the first place. 

So, how does teetotalism affect me and my work? It has its pros and cons. I have to rely on purely objective accounts of the effects of drug and alcohol use. This is perhaps both good and bad. My discipline (experimental psychology) is defined by its objectivity, and as noted in a previous post here, scientists shouldn’t infer much from their own experiences. Besides, my subjective experiences of the effects of alcohol are now a distant memory. However, maybe to truly understand something you have to experience it (think Freud and cocaine or Hofmann and LSD)?  I can honestly say that sometimes, particularly during the early stages of my PhD, I did not feel as qualified or knowledgeable as my peers who went to the pub regularly. I assumed they held a greater understanding at least partly because of their personal experiences!

Aside from the obvious health related benefits, a major ‘pro’ is that I always have a clear head for work; there are no hangovers for me! I have never experienced a hangover but they sound pretty unpleasant. This means my productivity doesn’t suffer due to hangover. Something that was highlighted by the government recently is the cost to the economy of hangovers whilst at work. Over 200000 people go to work with a hangover every day. However, I’d like to think I am not a robot purely focused on my work and that the most understandable ‘con’ of my total abstinence is that occasionally I think I am missing out on something. Alcohol plays an important role in British culture (including at Universities!):  socialising, celebrations, commiserations and everything in-between.  When I decided I did not want to drink any more, the hardest part in the beginning was the peer-pressure; my friends didn’t understand (some still don’t) why I would choose to do such a foolish thing.  I find that there is no pressure from my friends now. Maybe they have accepted I am a ‘lost cause’, but what I have noticed is that they themselves are starting to reduce their alcohol consumption. I am now in my mid twenties, so my peers and I are at an age now where heavy drinking is not compatible with our responsibilities. Have I produced this healthy change in my friends, or are they ‘maturing out’ of heavy drinking, as the evidence suggests they should?

Anyway, I am not advocating abstinence for all: moderation is a sensible goal for most people, and is likely to lead to fewer suspicious glances when you go to the pub. However, I do think my choices give me a different insight into the topic that I study for my day job, and I wanted to share those with you here. Thanks for reading.

Andy Jones (or: Dr Andrew Jones)
Twitter: @ajj_1988

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