Drinkaware Winter Research Briefing: Why don’t we do what we know is good for us?

To mark Alcohol Awareness Week, we hosted our 5th research briefing session in the series with the theme Why don’t we do what we know is good for us? How can we change that? We were delighted to host two speakers – Padraig Walsh, Beahvioural Psychologist and Director at ChangeAble Behaviour Solutions, and Ben Caspersz, Managing Director at Claremont Communications (UK).

Intentions, biases, actions

Padraig firstly took the audience through how we move from intentions to actions and the influence of biases and our environment on our behaviour. Just as we are influenced by what happens around us, various ‘seductive’ cognitive biases also help us to make sometimes complex and quick decisions and in turn make sense of the world as well as develop certain rules of thumb or habits. For instance, the availability bias in the ‘comfort of the couch’ phenomenon with motivations for drinking at home associated with relaxation is evident in our recent study on at-home drinking experiences. Self-serving bias leads to a tendency to over-estimate our own qualities and abilities compared with others. And as documented in our Index (2019), Irish adults have been found to view excessive drinking and potential related harms as a phenomenon unconnected to their own lives.

Co-design is key

Ben then provided an insight into the Save the Children Early Years Programme campaign in the UK that he led on, as a case study of how to apply theory to practice and demonstrate the importance of engaging and listening to people as a key part of the process. Through a combination of behavioural insights and co-design in the ideation, development, testing phases and scaling up were applied to this project by carefully listening and involving parents themselves at all key stages in order to effect positive change to early years’ literacy. Powerful images were used by Ben in telling the story of his research that helped the audience gain an insight into the real-world experiences described (#wonderwords in Northern Ireland). 

The two presentations were followed by a discussion that raised several interesting points. Ben noted that it is incumbent on us to infuse co-design into behaviour-informed interventions. While it can be a longer process, it can save time and money in the longer-term.

In reference to anchoring bias, the question was raised of how we can ensure proposed changes are attractive to people. Padraig pointed to the Drinkaware measure cup and drinks calculator as examples of how this was already working. He noted that when thinking about using the HSE low-risk weekly guidelines as an anchor, they must be attractive, salient and easy for people to understand and follow. It was then highlighted that the application of behavioural insights need to be tailored to different audiences. For instance, with alcohol restraint bias and the idea of ‘I’ll be fine’ among younger adults. Ben commented that it is crucial to understand that there is no one general adult population.

For instance, one adults’ experience of COVID-19 is very different to another. People are also more open to change once they have experienced a big life event. In terms of targeting older adults in which habits have already formed e.g. harmful drinking behaviour among older adults, Padraig highlighted that leveraging the social aspect such as social norms and social networks is an important step to redressing issues and attitudes.

Applying to 2021 and beyond

The event provided plenty of food for thought going into 2021 given that our Barometer series (2018, 2019, 2020) consistently shows little awareness of the HSE low-risk weekly guidelines among Irish adults (2-3%). Our recent qualitative research on At-Home Drinking also found that participants were unknowingly drinking more at home and terms such as ‘binge’ and ‘harmful’ did not register – the self-serving bias of over-estimating our own qualities and abilities as Padraig alluded to. Other research conducted by the HRB (2020) corroborates with our own data by identifying a lack of knowledge as a factor in people’s misconception of their harmful drinking. 

However, while changing deep-rooted behaviour is difficult, the presentations show that it is possible. For instance, we are starting to see a rising interest in changing behaviour. 48% of women and 32% of men stated that they would follow the HSE low-risk weekly guidelines if aware (Barometer 2020).

Similarly, the Drinkware Index (2019) showed that hazardous drinkers are open to positively changing their behaviours. Engaging with and sustaining people on a journey from information to knowledge to intention to action is crucialand involving people themselves in that process is key. This is what Drinkaware is aiming to do as the national charity working to prevent and reduce alcohol-related harm and ultimately helping to create a healthier Ireland. 

If you would like to be added to our invite list, please email research@drinkaware.ie. We also encourage you to look at the new section dedicated for our Research Briefing Series to which any outputs from this and all previous events are added and freely accessible.