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Relapse and the Hidden Dangers Behind “One Drink Won't Hurt”

How euphoric recall and fading effect bias can create a false sense of control.

Key points

  • Euphoric recall distorts memories, making alcohol seem more appealing than it truly is.
  • The fading effect bias causes us to forget the negative consequences of drinking faster than the positives.
  • A false sense of control often leads to risky situations, increasing the likelihood of relapse.
  • Understanding these cognitive biases can help maintain sobriety and prevent the cycle of relapse.

Have you ever found yourself reminiscing about alcohol like an older lover? You’ve been doing so well for weeks, feeling proud of your progress. Then, out of nowhere, a fond memory of a night out drinking with friends pops into your mind as you sit in a cozy restaurant. The laughter, the carefree joy—it all seems so appealing. You try to remind yourself why you decided to take a break from drinking, but other thoughts start popping up: “But you’ve been doing so well,” “You got it under control now.”

Finally, you convince yourself, “One drink can’t hurt,” and you wave to the waiter. Before you know it, you’re back in the old pattern—hangovers, drunk arguments, the endless obsession around the wine o’clock. Now you remember why you wanted to quit.

Euphoric Recall - “Remember the Good Old Time?”

How come we only remember why we wanted to quit after we've already reached for the drink? The scenario described above has a name—euphoric recall.

Our memory is like a playlist—only the favorite songs get replayed, leaving out the ones less liked. If I asked you about your past drinking experiences, you'd likely recall the bonding moments or numbing relaxation rather than the drunk argument and frequent blackouts.

This phenomenon is known as euphoric recall. Our brains tend to remember past experiences more positively than they actually were, often overlooking the negative aspects. Our memory selectively highlights the pleasures while downplaying or entirely forgetting the pain. When it comes to alcohol or other addictive substances, this creates powerful yet distorted memories that lure a person back into use.

However, this isn’t a flaw unique to those with substance use disorder. Euphoric recall is a universal phenomenon that showcases how our brains are wired—we naturally put on rose-colored glasses when looking back on the past.

Fading Effect Bias - “It Wasn’t That Bad”

These rose-colored glasses are known as the fading effect bias, a psychological phenomenon in which the emotional impact of negative memories diminishes faster than that of positive ones. Over time, we tend to remember positive experiences more vividly and in greater detail than negative ones.

This bias shapes how we recall past events, often causing us to remember the past in a more favorable light. For instance, the frustration and exhaustion of a chaotic vacation might feel overwhelming today, but in a few years, you’re more likely to recall the beautiful sunsets and exciting adventures rather than the missed flights and misplaced luggage. By reducing the emotional weight of negative experiences more quickly than positive ones, this bias helps us move on from past adversities and fosters psychological resilience. However, the downside is that it can also make us forget the pains that spurred us to change.

False Sense of Control - One Drink Won’t Hurt

When euphoric recall and fading effect bias combine, they create a powerful distortion in how we predict outcomes, which is called outcome expectancies. Positive memories of drinking, paired with the minimized recollection of negative consequences, lead to unrealistic expectations about drinking. We begin to believe we can handle "just one drink" because the good times are remembered vividly, while the bad times fade into the background.

This false sense of control can often lead us to put ourselves in highly tempting situations, such as going to our favorite bar, mistakenly thinking the urge to drink is now behind us. However, the temptation from a familiar setting, coupled with the thought “one drink won’t hurt,” makes resisting the drink extra hard.

Little do we know that once we take that one drink, the illusion of control shatters, and saying no to the next drink becomes even harder. This is called the abstinence violation effect; since we have already “fallen off the wagon,” we might as well go the whole way. The “harmless” one drink pulls us right back to the old drinking cycle. Perhaps one drink truly does hurt.

The Power of Awareness

Awareness alone can be a powerful tool against these psychological phenomena. By identifying and naming what is happening, you will have a better chance to resist the temptations they create. My favorite tool is keeping Sobriety Gratitude Logs, which I share in my free Monthly Sober Curious Magazine. It will help you focus on the positive aspects of sobriety and counterbalance the distorted memories of drinking.

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