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The 4 Main Reasons Why We Drink

Drinking to cope is especially concerning, but it's not the only risk.

Key points

  • Negative drinking motives, like coping and conformity, relate to using alcohol to deal with unpleasant emotions.
  • Positive drinking motives, like social and enhancement, relate to using alcohol for fun.
  • People who drink to cope are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder. People who drink for fun are more likely to binge drink.

An advertisement in my hotel elevator exclaims: “Whether you want to wind down after a long day, or wind up for a night on the town, the [hotel bar] is the place for you!”

It’s brilliant; that simple slogan captures decades of research.

People drink for many reasons, and they may each have their own unique story about when and why they choose to drink. But the research suggests that it’s actually fairly simple. Drinking motives boil down to four basic categories:

  1. Coping: Dealing with unpleasant emotions.
  2. Conformity: Trying to fit in.
  3. Enhancement: Wanting the pleasurable effects associated with alcohol.
  4. Social: Enjoying others’ company.

The first two are considered negative drinking motives and relate to winding down—using alcohol to “deal with it,” whatever “it” is for you. The latter two are referred to as positive drinking motives and relate to winding up—using alcohol for fun.

Do you primarily drink to cope or drink for fun? The answer hints at your risk of developing problems.

People who drink to cope are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.

This is probably because people are using alcohol to deal with underlying problems rather than seeking out more effective long-term solutions for managing their challenges. By drinking to cope, you’re avoiding dealing with the underlying problem(s), and your alcohol use can actually make them worse—for example, by interfering with relationships with family and friends. Individuals who experience trauma, or who are more prone to depression or anxiety, are more likely to report drinking to cope.

That doesn’t mean people who drink for fun aren’t at risk of developing problems.

The reality is that alcohol can be an addictive substance and, when used in large quantities, can be harmful regardless of why one chooses to drink. If you’re someone who drinks for fun, keep an eye on how much you’re drinking. Enhancement drinkers are more likely to binge drink or lose track of their drinking when with friends, which can lead to harmful consequences like accidents, fights, or unwanted sexual encounters. Unintended injury is the top cause of alcohol-related harm among teens and young adults.

If you are concerned about your drinking or that of a loved one, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has resources to help you identify problems and get help. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Health topics: Alcohol use disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.…

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