Why Do We Want to Drink? Is This Important to Know?

What’s New in Psychology?

Why Do We Want to Drink? Is This Important to Know?   

Jim Windell

             Why do we want to drink alcohol? What motivates people to start drinking?

            Of course, the easy answer is to blame it on our genes. “What do you expect? Both my father and grandfather were alcoholics?” “I come from a long line of alcoholics, so naturally I crave whiskey.”  

            Maybe everything can be traced back to the way our brain is wired or the way the messages are programmed in our chromosomes. But whether we are at a genetic risk for alcoholism or not, there has to be a reason why we take that first beer or we enjoy throwing back shots. Is it related to the way we think? Or does it have to do with our social life?

            A new study tries to answer these questions.

            For this new study, recently published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Environmental Research, investigators set out to determine whether drinking motives are a factor in the drinking motivations and patterns of people and what are the particular the roles of associated genetic and environmental influences.

           Researchers from Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia worked with data from 10,000 first-year students enrolled at a university in the years 2011 to 2015. Half of the participants were White and 60% were women. The students completed an initial online questionnaire and annual follow-up surveys throughout their college years. The surveys covered alcohol use, Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) symptoms, drinking motives and relevant environmental exposures. The relevant environmental exposures included how much autonomy they’d been allowed around drinking, peer behaviors such as getting drunk and cutting school and exposure to trauma – such as assault or natural disasters. The researchers also analyzed the DNA of 4,900 of their participants. Then, they used statistical analysis to explore associations between the students’ drinking motives, demographic and environmental characteristics and genetically influenced pathways that contribute to alcohol use.

           What was found was that drinking motives were stable throughout the college years, similarly to personality traits. Some environmental predictors of alcohol misuse were associated with all types of drinking motives. However, parental involvement was linked to lower levels of drinking and peer deviance to higher levels. Trauma, however, was more specifically linked to lower social motives and higher coping motives.

           The study also found correlations between drinking motives and alcohol use outcomes. For instance, drinking to cope was linked with AUDs and enhancement and social motives with both consumption and AUDs. The study also provided promising but inconclusive evidence on the biology underlying drinking motives and the influence of genetic variants on alcohol misuse. Genetic factors seemed to link coping motives with AUD. Some genetic variants appeared to be associated with drinking for conformity, and others with drinking for enhancement. The process by which genetic variants influence positive drinking motives (enhancement, social) may differ from that of negative motives (coping, conformity).

           Research for this study also found that motives for drinking – such as to party, to conform, to cope, or to feel good – are consistent through young adulthood. Genes, however, play a role in how those motives influence alcohol use.

           As the authors, led by Jeanne E. Savage, of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, point out, “Drinking motives, the reasons why people consume alcohol and what they hope to achieve by drinking, present a clear mechanism by which internalizing and externalizing pathways may lead to alcohol misuse and elucidate the intermediate mechanisms by which such pathways may unfold.” Since, they go on to write, alcohol is a psychoactive drug with both stimulant and sedative effects, motivations for drinking are likely to differ between individuals and, potentially, even between the same individual in different situations.

           The article states that the foremost model of drinking motives, developed by Cooper (1994), “…proposes four distinct types of drinking motives that fall under two dimensions: valence (negative versus positive reinforcement) and source (internal versus external). Negative reinforcement motives include coping (internal) and conformity (external) motives, which reflect drinking to obtain relief from negative emotions or escape unpleasant affective states. Positive reinforcement motives, on the other hand, underlie drinking to obtain positive affective states or enjoy the pleasurable aspects of alcohol, and are subclassified into enhancement (internal) and social (external) motives. Internal motives are driven by one's own desires or feelings, while external motives are driven by social or environmental influences. Drinking motives, particularly enhancement and coping motives, have repeatedly demonstrated robust, proximal associations with measures of alcohol consumption and alcohol problems.”

           Understanding the motives leading to drinking will help us understand the mechanisms linking genetic variants to differences in drinking behaviors. And this could present opportunities for predicting individuals’ vulnerability to Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and ways to intervene to prevent it. 

           While the study does not offer intervention strategies, it does point to the need for continuing research. Given the complexity of genetic influences on behavioral and psychiatric traits, larger studies are needed to investigate which genes are involved with which drinking motives. 

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Savage, J.E., Peterson, R.E., Aliev, F. et al. (2022). Genetic and environmental etiology of drinking motives in college students. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 46(10), 1783-1796. https://doi.org/10.1111/acer.14930


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