Men and women drinking beer at a bar in Raceland, Louisiana, September 1938.
Image: Russell Lee (Wikimedia Commons)

Why my habit of getting drunk every weekend really isn’t my fault

Ioan Marc Jones believes he can use the principles of economics to explain why he can never refuse the offer of a drink... or two... or six

“I’ll stay for one drink,” I tell my friend. “OK, just one more,” I tell him after I’ve necked the previous one. “Last one.” And so it goes. Seven doubles later and the illusion of ‘one more’ has faded and I’ve agreed, mentally at least, to succumb to complete intoxication.

Thus you have most of my Friday nights. On Saturday morning, after bathing in Alka-Seltzer, I inexorably enter the spiral of shame and self criticism: Why do I do this to myself? Why do I ruin an entire day, sometimes an entire weekend, for one evening of drunken abandonment?

For me, the answer lies in the what’s known as the ‘present bias’: our natural inclination to prefer a little bit now to a lot later on. A charming Haribo advert in 2012 – henceforth known as the 'Haribo test' – serves as a good example of this theory. The subjects of the Haribo test – small, adorable children – received one sweet to consume. If they could refrain from consuming the sweet for a short period, they would receive two sweets. Obviously, every kid immediately ate the first sweet.

Haribo: 'Just Too Good'

The ad explains that the children eat the sweets because they are ‘just too good’. But actually, these children consumed one sweet immediately as opposed to two in the future because of the present bias. It has little to do with the sweets’ yumminess – although they are pretty yummy.

The most basic mathematical equation for ignores the present bias. Two sweets will provide more utility than one and thus the sensible human being should always choose two sweets. Our impatience, however, ruins everything. The basic equations economists use to predict our behaviour go out the window when the present bias kicks in, and so actually measuring the decisions we make in life becomes frustratingly complicated.

A cute dog drinking beer from a pint galss
I want my pint and I want it now!

So why do we do this? Some economists think it’s because when we could have a benefit very soon, we’re impatient to get it faster, while when the benefit is inevitably very far away, we’re willing to wait longer. Economists attempt to account for the present bias by analysing human behaviour using what’s referred to as ‘hyperbolic discounting’. Sounds tricky, but actually it’s pretty straightforward. The theory suggests that we’re pretty impatient (a high discount rate) when choosing present benefits a short time into the future, but that we show greater patience the further into the future the benefits are shifted.

For example, if someone offers an individual one apple in 50 days or two apples in 51 days, the person will likely accept the latter choice. If someone offers one apple today or two apples tomorrow, however, the individual will likely accept the former choice.

So, if friends ask me to choose between a productive, enjoyable weekend in 51 days’ time, or getting smashed in a dive bar in 50 days, I'll choose the productive weekend. Probably. Yet if they ask me on Friday if I want to come to a dive bar, I’ll forego my productive weekend and opt for the immediate reward (fun) of getting hideously drunk yet again. There is, of course, an alternative conclusion: perhaps I have a drinking problem. Although, I’m leaning toward siding with the behavioural economists on this one.

Knowing this, no doubt I’ll once more accept the present bias this Friday night, drink loads and have a terrible weekend. “After all, it’s human nature,” I’ll tell myself the morning after. Perhaps I’ll drink on Saturday too - the hare of the dog is surely the epitome of the present bias. And perhaps I’ll continue drinking on Sunday as well and take this hyperbolic discounting malarkey to the extreme.

Whatever happens this weekend, one has to wonder whether going to this much effort to rationalise regular bouts of alcohol consumption – by citing behavioural economics, the present bias and hyperbolic discounting – might lead me to accept an alternative conclusion: I probably need to cut down on my drinking.

This article was authored in British English

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