Why Do People Drink Alcohol?

Since the 1950s, researchers have examined people’s reasons for drinking alcohol. In various studies, self-reported motives for drinking alcohol have included:

  • Reducing social anxiety
  • Increasing confidence 
  • Escaping problems 
  • Having fun or celebrating
  • Ritualistic or religious reasons 

Most of these motives fall neatly into one of two broad categories:

  • Negative reinforcement, or drinking to cope with stress, is usually defined as using alcohol to either avoid or modify unpleasant emotions such as fear, anxiety, or shame. 
  • Positive reinforcement, or social influences, generally means drinking to be lively, celebratory, and to have a good time with others.

Drinking to Cope with Stress

You can’t avoid stressors in life. There are many kinds of stress, and they can come from any number of things:

  • General daily life stressors may include bills you can’t pay, rocky interpersonal relationships, health issues, feeling overwhelmed at work, caregiving, a death or divorce, and even having to show up to happy occasions like weddings and childbirth.
  • Childhood stressors, such as abuse or neglect, poverty, and bullying, can result in trust and self-esteem issues that follow us into adolescence and adulthood.
  • Catastrophic stressors can include the trauma of a fire, earthquake, hurricane, or be the result of human activities such as terrorist attacks, kidnapping, war, or a nuclear strike. 
  • Minority stress can be caused by verbal, physical, systemic abuse, or oppressive reactions to your status as a racial, ethnic, sexual, or gender minority. 

Stress is often accompanied by anger, anxiety, excitement, sadness, and fear. Drinking to cope with these emotions may result in short-term relaxation and relief, but chronic stress can lead to long-term alcohol use, which can then work against you, both physically and psychologically. Ultimately, we can’t control the presence of stressors. We can only control how we respond to them.

Social Influences

Social influences include such elements as age, gender, race, and social norms. In one study:

  • Men drank significantly more alcohol than women did.
  • Men drank more heavily and frequently in proportion to their friends’ alcohol consumption, particularly in social situations. 
  • More men than women reported that both coping and being social were important to them. 
  • Both Black and White participants who drank primarily for coping reasons drank more heavily than those who drank primarily for social or other reasons, but the gap for White participants was much larger than the gap for Black participants.
  • People of all ages who drank mainly for coping reasons drank more heavily, but the tendency to drink for coping reasons appeared to decrease with age.

Social influences also include social norms. Social norms are the behavioral expectations within a community. For example, in many western societies, alcohol is used at specific events and regular times, such as Friday evenings after work. Such a norm limits and controls the use. Students, for instance, drink more on campuses that have a strong drinking culture.

Other Factors That Affect Drinking Behavior

There are incidental factors that affect not only whether or not we drink but also how much and how often. These can include:

  • Past experiences
  • Impulsivity 
  • Environment

Your past experiences with alcohol can affect your cravings and the likelihood that you will turn to it, or to a specific type of alcohol, in a given situation. If you got violently ill the first time you drank, you might be hesitant to drink again, but if you felt at ease and had a good time, you’ll likely want to try to recreate that experience. 

Impulsivity can lead you to choose the most readily available solution with the most immediate rewards, even if you know there could be negative consequences. Alcohol is an easy substance to come by, and it acts quickly. People who drink heavily also tend to be more impulsive in their behaviors.

Studies show that being exposed to alcohol-related cues increases the alcohol craving, so your environment can be a major influence on whether or not you drink when you drink and how much you drink. Even if you don’t drink at home, you may be more likely to drink at friends’ parties, family celebrations, and other special occasions or locations where other people are drinking. If you frequently go out to eat, and people are drinking, you may be more likely to crave a drink, too, even if the other people are strangers to you. 

Other environmental factors, such as place and price, can influence your behavior, too. Different restaurants and pubs charge different prices. Some formal affairs have an open bar, while others make guests pay for their drinks. Different states, and even counties, impose different taxes on alcoholic beverages. Research shows that raising the price of an alcoholic beverage by 10% reduces alcohol consumption by 7.7%. For some people, the literal cost of drinking in a given situation may not be worth the expected benefit.

There are a variety of reasons why people drink alcohol, and some of them can lead to an automatic behavior, even a desperate one. Recovery is a journey you must take at your own pace, and you can set goals to work toward over days, weeks and months. Each step gets you, and keeps you, on a healthy path that helps you avoid temptations and triggers. At Casa Palmera, we want you to live your best life and have a plan for your recovery. Our Los Angeles addiction treatment offers an array of treatment options designed to meet your individual needs. If you want to take charge of your alcohol consumption, reach out to us to talk about how to get back on track. You don’t need to heal all at once. You can take small steps toward your recovery to achieve bigger goals. Contact us today to start your path to recovery.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.