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OPINION20 March 2012

Calling time on binge drinking

In his MRS Conference session on behavioural economics, BrainJuicer’s chief operating officer Alex Batchelor described how he asked ordinary people to act as ethnographers to determine the causes of binge drinking.

“The idea of using ordinary people as ethnographers is not new… but trying to use it to see something through the lens of behavioural economics was where we did something different,” he said.

Batchelor summed up behavioural economics with the slogan, “We think a lot less than we like to think that we think; Most of the things I do are really automatic.”

Our decision making processes are influenced to a great degree by social, environmental and individual biases.
To study how these effects influence drinking behaviour, “we picked the drinking capital of Europe: Newcastle. Apologies to all you Geordies but it is something you are really good at.”

They discovered that people drink faster when standing up than those sitting down, and those without anywhere to put their drink down, drink faster still. Being with a group of faster-drinking people influences you to drink fast, and the people who drink fastest of all are those in fancy dress, perhaps because they feel the need to drink to over come the feeling of looking silly.

The policy implications of this research are that measures to tackle binge drinking should address the unconscious instead of the rational mind.

For example, the availability of free drinking water should be advertised, opaque glasses could prevent people from seeing other people drinking fast, and seating should be provided for drinkers who don’t want to stand.

And for bar owners looking to turn a quick profit: you should have “a dressing up box for customers: you’ll make back the investment in days”.

• Attendees of the annual conference regularly say that networking is one of the chief reasons they come. Sticking with the theme of behavioural economics, Batchelor prompted a debate about what could be done to improve mingling and networking opportunities at conference using gentle “nudges” to encourage interaction.

Suggestions from the floor included: “Tables, with assigned seating so you would not just speak to your colleagues when you get there”, “Making people opt out of the party instead of opting in” and “Getting more clients involved”.

Guest post by Alastair Heggie