We're Underestimating Our Drinking Habits
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We’re Underestimating Our Drinking Habits

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This post was originally published on June 24, 2014.

In my ex-coke fiend’s determination to keep drinking without becoming an alcoholic (before I sucked it up and got sober), I tried a non-12-step program called Moderation Management that required “problem drinkers” to keep track of our daily drinks. Forget the lofty goal of stopping at some government-approved “daily maximum” of four—even doing the counting was way harder than it sounds. So it came as no surprise for me to discover that everyone else is really bad at it, too. In fact, when it comes to reporting their alcohol consumption, even normies tend to be either totally dishonest or totally wrong.

Everyone’s Aiming Low

A Canadian study published in the journal Addiction shows that people—especially young people—drink way more than they say they do. In a phone-based survey of more than 43,000 Canadians, researchers used something called the “yesterday method” to gauge the discrepancy between self-reporting and reality. First, they asked respondents the typical questions about how much alcohol they consume per month—you know, the ones we’re all used to fibbing about at the doctor’s office. (Let’s see…well, maybe three nights a week you have a glass of wine with dinner, and maybe a couple more on Friday night with the girls…so, okay, six drinks a week?) But then they followed up by asking everyone how many drinks they’d had yesterday. (Yesterday…what day was yesterday? Oh yeah, the pub crawl through downtown where you may or may not have had that sixth cosmo over garlic fries at Cole’s. So yeah, six, I guess. Again. Isn’t that funny?) Turns out if you tell the nice man on the phone that you average six drinks per week, yet by some coincidence you happen to have that exact same number still percolating through your exocrine system, you start to look a bit like an unreliable narrator. Especially if yesterday happens to be a Tuesday.

This sneaky little phone survey found its participants under reporting hard liquor consumption by almost 66%, while beer clocked in at 38% and wine at 49%. Both men and women were equally guilty of under reporting their libations, but young people’s numbers tended to be more off-base.

Innocent Miscalculating or Calculated Denial?

The study doesn’t explicitly draw conclusions about why people under report their drinking. How big a role do dishonesty and denial play, and how much of it is innocent miscalculation (or misremembering)? Obviously, when you’re blackout drunk it is literally impossible to remember how many drinks you’ve had. But unless Canada is way more fun than I’d previously imagined, most of the people in the survey aren’t getting deliriously smashed on a regular basis. So that can’t account for the whole problem. Are we simply embarrassed to admit how much we’re boozing? Or are too many survey questions framed in terms of our “typical” intake, and we’re just reluctant to include that company party where we passed out under our desks as “typical?”

Padding the Standard Serving Size

Yet another complicating factor—and something the survey didn’t even address—is that “one drink” is a pretty negotiable quantity. Most people have very little awareness of the NIAA standards, but they tend to skew low. As I quickly learned in my drink-counting days, any cocktail worth the salt on its rim is usually at least two standard drinks. And while the government says one drink of beer is a 12-ounce bottle that’s 5% alcohol by volume, the craft beer beloved by hipsters everywhere can range all the way up to 12%, and besides it’s served in pints. So when I was hopping from Ballast Point to Lost Coast, how was I to know whether “one more beer” was actually one beer or more like two or three?

Whether we’re liars, expert deniers, or woefully bad at math, when we underestimate our drinking habits we’re ultimately just kidding ourselves. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting over here counting out another big fat zero. Just don’t call me asking how many gummy bears I consumed yesterday.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.