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Why Do People Drink?

People are motivated to use addictive substances for these reasons.

Key points

  • Two factors influence our values and expectations.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Motivation is generally described as the force that drives us to pursue a goal. Where does this feeling of resolve come from? The answer is the overall benefit of a goal pursuit, to which two factors contribute—the subjective value of goal pursuit and the perceived likelihood of successful goal pursuit (Value x Likelihood). In other words, the strength of people’s commitment to something depends on its value to them and the chance that the value will, in fact, occur.

The relationship between these two factors is multiplicative (Value x Likelihood). This means that there will be no motivation to the goal pursuit if the value of the goal is zero, no matter how high the likelihood of success. Similarly, there will be no motivation if the expected chance is quite low.

The goal of using drugs is formed in the same way as any other goal. It is determined largely by, first, the value that the person places on drugs and, second, the person’s expected chances of being able to get the desired benefits from their use. This view can be applied to explain the reasons why people decide to drink. The decision to drink alcohol will depend on the value that the person attributes to drinking alcohol—to elevate positive mood, alleviate negative mood and anxiety, or increase confidence—and the person’s expectation that these outcomes will actually happen.

Let's consider several factors that are likely to lead to an increased motivation to consume alcohol. These factors influence values and expectancies.

1. Past Experiences

Past experiences with alcohol help to shape people’s current value and the expectations that they place on drinking alcohol. Alcohol users may recall their previous positive experiences with alcohol, and this may increase their motivation to drink. A negative experience will do the opposite. The experience of alcohol flush reactions (e.g., body flushes and nausea) after ingestion negatively affects the value of drinking alcohol. The flush reaction is more common in Asian populations but can occur among other groups as well. People with this reaction experience drinking alcohol as less pleasurable than others do, and they have lower drinking rates.

2. Impulsive Personality

Impulsive individuals consistently choose rewards that are immediately available, despite the negative future consequences of those choices. They will value drugs or alcohol because of their rewarding properties. Heavy drinkers are more impulsive than light drinkers and, consequently, use more alcohol.

3. Stress

People experiencing aversive psychological symptoms value drinking alcohol, because it helps to alleviate their negative feelings. The drinking removes, at least temporarily, the stress of anxiety.

//], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Annie Mole (Circle Line Party Festivities) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

4. Social Norms

From a motivational perspective, social norms affect the value that individuals place on drug use. 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 evening after work. Such a norm limits and controls the use. For example, students drink more on campuses that have a strong drinking culture.

5. Environment

Exposure to alcohol-related cues increases the craving for alcohol, and therefore the value of drinking. On the other hand, financial influence, such as taxation, makes drinking less attractive: Evidence shows that simply raising the price of an alcoholic beverage by 10 percent reduces alcohol consumption by 7 percent.

In sum, the motivational perspective predicts that people will be motivated to use addictive substances to the extent they expect that doing so will result in desirable effects that they want to achieve. Otherwise, they would not find it so appealing.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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