Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


2 Simple, Powerful Ways to Cut Alcohol Consumption

Focusing on the risks, and counting.

Key points

  • A new two-step alcohol reduction strategy appears to work by focusing on "why" and "how" messages associated with addictive behavior.
  • The most persuasive message for the "why to reduce" question featured troubling, but factual, information linking cancer with drinking.
  • The best recommendation for "how to reduce" alcohol was to count your drinks. This worked better than setting a limit beforehand or saying "no."
  • These "why" and "how" strategies were most successful when participants followed both. One without the other produced weaker results.
julia larson/Pexels
Source: julia larson/Pexels

As the saying goes, "too much of anything isn't good for anyone." Alcohol is a potent contributor to poor health, playing a role in 7 percent of premature deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. These numbers are so alarming they now recommend a goal of reducing dangerous alcohol use by 10 percent before 2025.

A recent study identified two simple steps that can go a long way to helping drinkers achieve a meaningful reduction in alcohol. The research emphasizes a combination of why to reduce and how to reduce messaging that, if executed properly, will result in measurable improvements in health across a population. Here are the key steps.

1. Highlight the increased risk of cancer associated with drinking.

Do you really need a reason to curb your drinking? The answer, for many, is yes.

Countless studies on social persuasion have shown that simply telling people that something is bad for them is not enough to incentivize healthy behaviors. The critical point is to include specific, data-driven evidence illustrating cause-and-effect relationships. When presented as the outcome of scientifically valid medical observations, the message "drinking increases the risk of cancer" has more persuasive power than the more generic "drinking is bad for you" pitch. It scares you just enough to raise your concern, it seems, because it carries hard-to-ignore science.

The primary obstacle is not the message itself—it is based on sound science and readily understandable to experts and non-experts alike—but how to spread the word. That's where these community health campaigns sometimes fall short. There are a lot of good ideas floating around out in the world that just don't make it to everyone's ears.

Consumer information about health and alcohol can be disseminated in various ways, including product labeling, school curricula, and social marketing campaigns. It seems the researchers have a great idea; now they just need to get the word out.

2. Count every single drink you have.

Fear of cancer is a good reason why one might want to reduce their alcohol intake, but that's only half of the story. The second prong of attack focuses on how to minimize drinking. According to the research, simply counting your drinks honestly and consistently is a powerful how-to strategy.

Researchers studying the psychology of addiction examined thousands of participants using online surveys over the course of six weeks. Participants were shown a television ad featuring a "why to reduce" message that was combined with various "how to reduce" messages, including:

  1. Keep count of your drinks.
  2. Decide how many drinks you want to have, then stick to it.
  3. It’s OK to say no.

The best combination was among the participant group who watched the television ad and kept count of their drinks. These individuals saw a significant reduction in alcohol consumed over the course of the study. They were most likely to say they intended to change their habits, as well as most likely to find real-world success using these attempted behavioral changes. It seems they were willing to try and the trying worked.

The Bottom Line

Drinkers, the researchers concluded, should be encouraged to monitor their intake of alcohol to help reduce harmful long-term effects. When explicit drink counting is combined with advertisements that arouse fear of cancer, overactive drinkers can be persuaded to minimize boozing behavior.

Facebook image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock


Pettigrew, S., Booth, Longenelis, M.I., Brennan, E., Chikritzhs, T., Hasking, P., Miller, P., Hastings, G., & Wakefield, M. (2021). A randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of combinations of ‘why to reduce’ and ‘how to reduce’ alcohol harm-reduction communications, Addictive Behaviors, 121, 107004.

Alcohol Consumption and the Risk of Cancer. Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

More from Kevin Bennett Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Kevin Bennett Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today