The Liverpool View: Reflections on ‘Dry January’

From l to r: Nicholas Lockwood, Prof Simon Maskell, Dr Alex Phillips and Andre Finn.

MField

Professor Matt Field is Professor of Experimental Addiction Research in the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society.

“February 1st has arrived, and I have not consumed any alcohol since New Year’s Eve. Which means that I managed to stay off the sauce for a whole month, a target I set when I signed up for Dry January, a campaign run by Alcohol Concern.

I found the experience both interesting and – dare I say it – enjoyable. I slept better and generally felt healthier. I was particularly interested in this because, as Professor of Psychology at the University of Liverpool, and I conduct research into addiction, particularly alcohol problems and the psychology of self-control.

Personally, I wouldn’t say that I had an alcohol problem (not the whisky on cornflakes kind, anyway), but I probably drink a little more than the Government recommends at 3-4 units per day for men and 2-3 units per day for women.

Resolution

So, how did I cope? Overall, I was never seriously tempted to break my resolution. I made a big deal of telling everyone who would listen that I was doing it, and fortunately my social calendar was pretty light for the whole month.

I went out for dinner and to the pub a few times, but deliberately avoided anything that had the potential to turn into a Big Night Out. I was happy to be the designated driver for a posh meal out in the Lancashire countryside for a friend’s birthday. Fortunately my girlfriend doesn’t drink much, and when she does she sticks to pink wine, which I think is vile, so that helped!

Stress levels at work were about average – about 7 out of 10, I would say – and although sometimes I had a bad day and was tempted to open some wine when I got home, I found it surprisingly easy to stay on track. If anything, it got easier as the month progressed.

I noticed a few things which connect well with some of the research that I have conducted over the years. Firstly, we have studied how the perception of the availability of alcohol has a very powerful influence on craving, and other psychological processes. If people are told that alcohol is available imminently, their desire to drink rockets, they get more distracted by alcohol-related ‘cues’ in their environment, and their self-control plummets.

Tempted

This concept of ‘availability’ is a strange one. Alcohol is all around us, including at my home, and I could easily get some at a moment’s notice. But because I had told everyone that I would not be drinking, this made it ‘unavailable’ as far as I was concerned. In my experience, it was this feeling that meant that I was rarely tempted to drink, and on the handful of times when I was tempted, this soon passed.

It also got me thinking about ‘self control’. At the beginning of the month, I thought it would get much harder as the month progressed, but actually, despite a tough first weekend, it got easier.

Now, there are at least three different ideas about the psychology of self-control. One is that each person has a fairly fixed capacity for self-control: they can’t do anything about it, although if they use alcohol or other drugs for a long period of time it might cause a permanent reduction in self-control. Another idea is that self-control is like a muscle, which gets tired whenever we have to exert self-control but it can perhaps be strengthened by repeatedly practicing self-control.

Self-control
Based on this idea, we might expect that I would have found it difficult earlier on in the month – as my self-control ‘muscle’ became weak – but after that it might get easier as that ‘muscle’ got stronger.

A competing idea is that self-control is ‘all in the mind’: people don’t have a fixed capacity for self-control, but rather they have beliefs (or an identity) about how much self-control they have, and they act accordingly. So if someone believes that their self-control is rubbish, they may crack at the first sign of temptation.

Unfortunately, my own experience doesn’t really help me to tell which of these theories is true: did I find it difficult at first, but then easier, because I had strengthened my self-control muscle, or because I had learned that my self-control was actually better than I thought it was, so my identity had changed? Perhaps it is a bit of both? Or neither? I’m a scientist, so I know that I cannot infer that much from my own experiences, but it has given me some extra insight – not to mention some ideas for new research projects!

Overall, I found it a useful and sobering experience. If you think you drink too much, I would encourage you to think about doing Dry February (or maybe just start with a ‘Dry Week’). I have certainly seen opportunities for me to cut down my drinking when life returns to normal, and take account of recommendations from the British Liver Trust to have 2-3 dry days per week.

Finally, I should say that, despite some concerns about Dry January and Dryathlon, I do NOT intend to go on a mad binge in February. However, there is a beer festival down the road from my house tonight, and I would be fibbing if I said that I wasn’t looking forward to a pint or two of ale……”

half a pint of beer

One thought on “The Liverpool View: Reflections on ‘Dry January’

  1. Ann Smith

    Congratulations Matt, I have just done “dry January” myself and what you say mirrors my experience. I found it much easier than I thought I would and it got easier rather than harder. Telling loads of people i was doing it helped, as did havng a particular goal in mind. Although I must say some friends were less than helpful , but denying them the satisfaction of seeing me caving it was another reward!

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