Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Alcohol motivation

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Alcohol motivation:
What motivates people to drink and how can this be safely managed?
This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

Introduction: What motivates you to drink?[edit | edit source]

People often enjoy the taste of alcoholic drinks like cocktails

Have you ever thought about what motivates you to drink? Some of the most common reasons include: to celebrate a special occasion. For toasting others good fortune. For enjoyment. To unwind and relax. For the taste. But what do psychologists have to say about the matter? The purpose of this chapter is to provide a comprehensive understanding of what psychological theory and research has discovered about what motivations to drink alcohol. Another aim is to provide information on how to safely manage these motivations. Why is it important you find out what motivates you or others to drink alcohol? There are several reasons:

  1. Most of us are consumers of alcohol. In 2007, approximately 90 percent of Australians over the age of 14 had consumed alcohol at sometime in their life. Approximately 40 percent of these Australians drank alcohol on a weekly basis and eight percent drank on a daily basis (Carr, 2011).
  2. Harmful use of alcohol is one of society’s biggest health risks. Alcohol is responsible for up to 20 to 50 percent of the cases of cirrhosis of the liver as well as epilepsy, poisonings, road traffic accidents, violence and several types of cancer (Global Status Report, 2011).
  3. Everyone makes a conscious or unconscious decision to drink every time they consume alcohol. Psychological research suggests that what motivates you to drink is the final step in this decision process (Kuntsche, Wiers, Jansen, & Gmel, 2010).

This chapter begins by identifying what factors have an influence on alcohol consumption, other than drinking motives. It will then provide a distinction between alcohol expectancies and alcohol motives. Next it will discuss some of the issues psychologists have had with identifying distinct drinking motives and present Cooper’s (1994) Four Factor Model. It then provides a review of the literature that validates and questions this model and will conclude with information on how to safely mange drinking motives and a brief summary.

What influences alcohol use?[edit | edit source]

You are more likely to drink if you are socialising with friends at a bar

While the main focus of this chapter is explaining the motivations behind alcohol consumption, it is important to mention that several other factors have an influence on the decisions we make to drink alcohol or not. These factors are presented in Cox and Klinger’s (1988) motivational model of alcohol use and fall into one of two categories.

Historical circumstances[edit | edit source]

Factors that fall into the historical circumstance category are those that have helped to shape a person’s past experiences with drinking such as their biochemical response to alcohol, their personality and/or socio-cultural background (Cox, & Klinger, 1988).

For example, a person who cannot metabolise alcohol quickly will often experience stronger, negative physical effects than a person who can metabolize it quickly. As a result, this person develops a biological predisposition to avoid consuming large quantities of alcohol because of the negative side effects that occur afterward. Past experience of these is likely to add weight to their decision not to drink (Cox, & Klinger, 1988).

Current circumstances[edit | edit source]

Factors that fall into the current circumstance category are those that have an immediate impact on a person’s decision to drink such as the situation in which they are located, whether they are in a good or bad mood, their alcohol expectancies and/or their motives behind drinking (Cox, & Klinger, 1988).

For example, a person’s propensity to drink increases if alcohol is readily available and the immediate situation is conducive to drinking. Someone at work is less likely to drink than someone socialising with friends at a bar (Cox, & Klinger, 1988).

Alcohol expectancies and drinking motives:[edit | edit source]

Alcohol expectancies and drinking motives are conceptually and empirically distinct (Birch, Stewart, Wall, McKee, Eisnor, & Theakston, 2004). According to Cox and Klinger’s (2004) distinction (as cited in Kuntsche et al., 2010) “expectancies are people’s beliefs about what will happen if they (or other people) drink alcohol, whereas motives are the value place on the particular effects they want to achieve, which motivate them to drink” (p. 124).

Problems with identifying distinct motives that influence alcohol use[edit | edit source]

If a friend were to ask you “what motivates you to drink?” it would seem like a simple enough question to answer. You might reply “I enjoy the taste,” or “it helps me relax,” or even “I am funnier when I’m drunk.” Although this question is easy enough to answer in everyday conversation, motivational psychologists, who must base their response on psychological theory and empirical research, have found it a little trickier to answer. These psychologists have encountered several problems with current efforts to measure and identify distinct motives for alcohol use:

How many motives influence alcohol use?[edit | edit source]

The first problem psychologists’ face is determining the number and the type of motives that have an influence on people’s decisions to consume alcohol. In a study conducted by Newcomb, Chou, Bentler, and Huba (1988), the authors found evidence to support the presence of a single higher order motive that influences peoples’ decisions to drink. In separate studies conducted by Cutter and O’Farrell (1984) (as cited in Cooper, 1994) and Johnston and O’Malley (1986) (as cited in Cooper, 1994), the authors identified the influences of up to five and six different motives for the decision to drink[what?].

How are these motives measured?[edit | edit source]

The second problem psychologists’ were confronted with was the way in which drinking motives have been assessed in different studies. Research conducted by Cooper (1994) found that specific drinking motives across a number of studies had not been correctly assessed. The items which were used to measure the influence of motives were also employed to measure different drinking motives in a number of other studies. Cooper also discovered that the same construct was deemed to have face-validity (it was measuring what it was suppose to) even thought it was used to measure different drinking motives across several different studies.

What relationship do motives have with alcohol use?[edit | edit source]

The third problem psychologist have is explaining the inconsistency between studies on the relationship between drinking motives and alcohol use. While some studies suggest only a simple linear relationship exists between alcohol consumption and the number and strength of motives assessed, others have identified distinct relationships between drinking and different drinking motives (Cooper, 1994).

Although these problems have made it difficult for motivational psychologists to identify and conceptualise distinct drinking motives, contributions made by Cox and Klinger (1988) and Cooper (1994) appear to have overcome these issues and led to the creation of a four-factor motivational model of alcohol use which appears to be the most influential in this field of research.

Cooper’s (1994) Four-Factor Model[edit | edit source]

One of the most widely used motivational models of alcohol use is Cooper’s (1994) four-factor model. While other models exist, Cooper’s is one of the most comprehensive and solves most the issues raised with identifying distinct motives for alcohol use. Cooper’s model begins by drawing on the work of theorists Cox and Klinger (1988):

Cox and Klinger’s Model[edit | edit source]

Cox and Klinger’s (1988) model of alcohol use explains a person’s motivation to consume alcohol using the construct of incentive motivation and the process of affective change. Incentive motivation is a theoretical construct determined by American psychologist Clark L Hull in the 1950s to explain the extreme degree and intensity of behaviour that both humans and animals exhibit.

Hull suggested that the extreme degree and intensity of behaviour can be accounted for by an organisms’ motivation to pursue incentives (Cox & Klinger, 1988). Accordingly, people pursue positive incentives to increase positive affect and seek to get rid of negative incentives that produce negative affect. Affect is understood as the psychological component or experience of an emotional response. The process of affective change refers to an alteration from one state of affect to another (Cox & Klinger, 1988). According to Cox and Klinger, alcohol consumption can bring on the process of affective change in two separate ways:

Alcohol and emotion[edit | edit source]

Affective change can occur via alcohol consumption due to the direct chemical effects alcohol has on emotions. These effects are often referred to as “tension reducing” or “mood enhancing” (Langenbucher, & Nathan, in press, as cited in Cox & Klinger, 1988; West, & Sutker, in press, as cited in Cox & Klinger, 1988). What is interesting however, is that people’s expectations about alcohol’s ability to alter their mood is more likely to result in mood change rather than the actual chemical effects of the substance itself (Lang, & Michalec, in press, as cited in Cox & Klinger, 1988; Marlatt, & Rohsenow, 1980, as cited in Cox & Klinger, 1988).

Alcohol and other incentives[edit | edit source]

Affective change can also be caused indirectly by alcohol consumption via the role it plays on other incentives in a person’s life. According to Cox and Klinger (1988), alcohol consumption can be helpful or a hindrance in a person’s ability to obtain positive incentives or avoid negative ones. If a person’s incentives are affected via alcohol consumption then this will bring on affective change. For example, social factors indirectly influence a person’s decision to consume alcohol because alcohol plays a part in obtaining an incentive such as peer approval (Whites, Bates & Johnson, in press, as cited in Cox and Klinger, 1988).

From Cox and Klinger’s (1988) work, Cooper (1994) determined that distinct drinking motives are influenced by two fundamental dimensions of the outcomes a person expects to achieve through alcohol consumption. These are the valence (positive or negative) and source (internal or external) of a person’s expectations. In other words, a person may be motivated to consume alcohol in order to achieve a positive outcome (positive reinforcement) or avoid a negative outcome (negative reinforcement). Their motivations to consume alcohol are also determined by whether they are pursuing an internal incentive, such as regulating their emotional state or an external incentive such as peer approval (Cooper, 1994). By crossing these two dimensions, Cooper’s model gives rise to four distinct drinking motives which appear in the table below.

Motives Source (Internally or Externally generated) Valence (Positive or Negative Reinforcement) Behaviour
Enhancement Internal Positive Drinking to enhance a positive mood or well-being
Coping Internal Negative Drinking to reduce or manage negative emotions
Social External Positive Drinking to achieve positive social incentive
Conformity External Negative Drinking to avoid social censure or peer rejection

Drinking motives[edit | edit source]

So does psychological research support the presence of four distinct drinking motives? Below is information from a number of psychological studies that validate and call into question Cooper’s four factor model of alcohol use.

Coping motives[edit | edit source]

People who drink to cope are at more risk of developing alcohol-related problems

Psychological research on drinking motives has focused predominantly on the influences of coping motives and alcohol use. The most likely explanation for this focus is that people who drink in order to cope with negative emotions have a higher risk of developing serious mental health problems than someone who is motivated to drink for other reasons. According to research by Cooper (1994), people who are motivated to drink, in order to cope, tend to consume alcohol more frequently and in larger quantities. As a consequence, people who drink heavily are more likely to develop serious alcohol-related problems such as dependence, abuse and disease of the internal organs (Cooper, 1994).

Research conducted by Cooper, Frone, Russell, and Mudar (1995) suggests that the reason why people use alcohol to cope with negative emotions is because they do not possess more adaptive ways of coping. They argue that as people rely more heavily on alcohol to cope with their negative emotions, adaptive coping deteriorates and this often results in psychological dependence on alcohol (Cooper et al., 1995).

Some of the most supportive evidence for the presence of a coping motive that influences drinking can be found in adult samples presenting with both a social anxiety disorder and an alcohol use disorder. For example, in a study conducted by Thomas, Randall and Carrigan (2003) (as cited in Blumenthal, Leen-Feldner, Frala, Badour, & Ham, 2010), 50 percent of participants consumed alcohol prior to a social event in order to reduce their anxiety, 80 percent consumed alcohol during the event and 80 percent reported they often avoid social situations where alcohol consumption is not possible.

A number of other studies have demonstrated peoples’ use of alcohol to cope with negative emotions. These emotions were brought on by a range of stressors such as hetero-social evaluation, criticism, difficult or unsolvable tasks and public speaking. In Higgins and Marlatt’s (1975) study on alcohol consumption and hetero-social evaluation, 64 male students participated in a wine tasting task. Half the students were told they would be participating in a second experiment in which a group of women would evaluate them. Higgins and Marlatt found that students who were expecting to be evaluated consumed significantly more alcohol than those who did not know about the evaluation.

Enhancement motives[edit | edit source]

Like coping motives, Cooper (1994) found that people who drink to enhance a positive mood are likely to be frequent and heavy users of alcohol. However, Cooper did stress that enhancement motives only positively predicted patterns of heavy alcohol use in situations that encouraged heavy drinking such as drinking in a bar with same-sex friends.

Unfortunately, very little research has been conducted on enhancement motives and alcohol use and this appears to be having an adverse impact on the validity of Cooper’s four factor model. Several theorists have noted the lack of empirical support for the influence of enhancement motives on alcohol use (Colder, & O’Connor, 2002). However, the few studies that have been conducted on enhancement motives have yielded some positive results.

In a study conducted by Newcomb, Chou, Bentler, and Huba (1988), the authors investigated cognitive motivations for alcohol and cannabis use among adolescents. They found considerable support for the relevance and influence of enhancement motives on alcohol use with just over 50 percent of participants reporting consuming alcohol for the purposes of enhancing positive affect and creativity (Newcomb et al., 1988). Further support for the influence of enhancement motives on alcohol use was also provided by Read, Wood, Kahler, Maddock, and Palfai’s (2003) study in which enhancement motives were found to predict alcohol use in adolescents.

In a study conducted by Colder and O’Connor (2002), the authors suggest that the reason why people use alcohol to enhance a positive mood is because alcohol produces a feeling of euphoria (Marlatt, 1987, as cited in Colder & O’Connor, 2002) which arouses the cerebral reward system (M. Ingvar, Ghatan, Wirsén-Meurling, Risberg, Von Heijine, Stone-Elander, & D. H. Ingvar, 1997, as cited in Colder & O’Connor, 2002). As a consequence, positive reinforcement occurs and an increase in positive mood becomes a motivation for alcohol use (Colder, & O’Connor, 2002).

Conformity motives[edit | edit source]

Like enhancement, conformity motives are another drinking motive that has yet to be properly addressed in psychological literature. In a study by Lewis et al. (2008), the authors found that conformity motives are positively related to certain features associated with social anxiety. This suggests that people who are motivated to drink to avoid social censure or peer rejection do so because of interaction anxiety, social avoidance, and social fears (Lewis et al., 2008).

The relevance of conformity motives on alcohol use has been supported by several studies. Results from a study conducted by MacLean and Lecci (2000) found support for the influence of conformity motives on alcohol use in a sample of volunteer undergraduate university students. Martens, Rocha, Martin, and Scerraro (2008) also found evidence to suggest that conformity motives are a distinct set of drinking motives relevant to college students’ alcohol use. However, research conducted by Martens, Cox, Beck, and Heppner (2003) on a sample of undergraduate athletes found contrary evidence to suggest conformity motives do not have an influence on alcohol use in college students.

Social motives[edit | edit source]

Although there has been little research available on enhancement and conformity motives, there has however, been an adequate investigation by psychologists into social motives and alcohol use. One explanation for this adequate investigation may be due to the frequent consumption of alcohol in many social situations.

A number of studies have established the relevance and distinct influence of social motives on alcohol use. Not only have social motives been found to influence adolescent drinking, they have also been found to influence the consumption of alcohol in adults (Cooper, 1994). For example, in a longitudinal study conducted on first-time college students, Vaughan, Corbin, and Fromme (2009) found that during the transition from high school to college, social motives had the strongest influence on student’s alcohol consumption. The authors suggest that social motives are the most influential at this point in time because they appear to coincide with the developmental tasks of establishing peer networks and creating close friendships (Arnett, 2005, as cited in Vaughan et al., 2009). This is supported by White and Jackson (2004/2005) (as cited in Vaughan et al., 2009) who also argue that many social activities revolve around drinking at this time.

According to Cooper (1994), several studies have indicated that drinking to achieve positive social rewards is more common in participants than drinking to reduce negative affect. Furthermore, people who are motivated to drink alcohol to achieve positive social rewards consume alcohol less frequent, in small quantities and in social settings. As a result, these people are less likely to experience the health problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption (Cooper, 1994).

How to safely manage drinking motives[edit | edit source]

As stressed in the introduction, there are many negative side effects associated with alcohol consumption. For these reasons, we need to manage our motivations in order to consume alcohol safely and abstain from drinking every now and again. Although there will always be some risk to your health and social well-being if you choose to drink alcohol, here are some simple tips provided by the publication Alcohol Abuse (2007) which you can follow to help make sure you don’t overdo it:

  • Know how many standard drinks you can have – according to Australian standards, men should consume no more than four standard drinks of alcohol and women no more than two drinks during a session
  • Have alcohol free days – it is recommended that both men and women abstain from drinking for at least two days each week
  • Keep a record or a diary of how much you have to drink each day – this will help you monitor how much you are drinking on a daily or weekly basis
  • Be assertive and don’t let friends pressure you into drinking – you can politely tell your friend “thanks but no thanks”

According to the research on social and conformity motives, a lot of people experience pressure from friends in social situations to drink alcohol and often to drink to excess. It is particularly hard to enjoy a social gathering when everyone else is drinking and they are also trying to make you drink. Here are some simple tips from the publication Alcohol Abuse (2007) which you can also follow to help you drink less while attending a social gathering:

  • Make sure your first drink is a soft drink or glass of water– we often drink more quickly when we are thirsty so quench it first with a non-alcoholic drink
  • Drink slowly – try to sip your drink rather than gulp it
  • Don’t nurse your drink – if it is safe to leave your drink unattended, put it down between sips so that drinking does not become an automatic action
  • Make sure you eat before and while you are drinking – alcohol is absorbed more slowly when you have a full stomach
  • Avoid getting involved in “shouts” or rounds – drink at your pace rather than someone else’s. If you get stuck in a shout, buy a non-alcoholic drink when your turn comes around
  • Drink from pre-packaged bottles or cans of alcohol – this makes it easier for you to count the number of standard drinks you have
  • Don’t let people top up your drink – this makes it hard to keep track of how many drinks you’ve had
  • Make every second or third drink a non-alcoholic drink – this will also slow down your alcohol consumption
  • Keep busy – if you are playing pool or dancing you will tend to drink less
  • Try drinking the low-alcoholic alternative – this will reduce your overall alcohol consumption
  • Try a mocktail – your friends won’t know you’re not drinking alcohol

If you have concerns about what motivates you to drink alcohol and don’t find these tips helpful then you should contact your doctor. Your doctor will talk with you about these concerns and/or refer you on to a counsellor or clinical psychologist who can also help. You may also find the information provided in the links below helpful:

In addition you might like to check out another chapter from Improve your life called Addiction

Summary[edit | edit source]

The purpose of this chapter was to provide a comprehensive understanding of what psychological theory and research has discovered about what motivates you to drink. Psychologists have had some difficulty in identifying distinct drinking motives because of several issues that have arisen from a variety of studies on motivation and alcohol use. More recently however, Cooper (1994) identified four distinct motives that have been found to influence alcohol use in both adolescents and adults in a number of studies. These were: coping, enhancement, conformity and social motives. Of the four motives, coping and enhancement have been found to be associated with alcohol related problems such as dependence, abuse and disease. On the other hand, alcohol consumption motivated by social motives was found to have the least harmful effects of the drinking motives.

A secondary aim of this chapter was to provide information on how to safely manage your motivation to drink. The tips provided in this chapter may be helpful for those of you, who want to cut back your alcohol consumption. For those of you, who are concerned about what is motivating you to drink, then make sure you seek further advice. You can visit the links provided in this chapter and/or make an appointment to see your doctor.

References[edit | edit source]

Birch, C. D., Stewart, S. H., Wall, A., McKee, S. A., Eisnor, S. J., & Theakston, J. A. (2004). Mood- induced increases in alcohol expectancy strength in internally motivated drinkers. Psychology of Addictive Behaviours, 18(3), 231-238. doi:10.1037/0893-164X.18.3.231

Blumenthal, H., Leen-Feldner, E. W., Frala, J. L., Badour, C. L., & Ham, L. S. (2010). Social anxiety and motives for alcohol use among adolescents. Psychology of Addictive Behaviours, 24(3), 529-534. doi:10.1037/a0019794

Carr, C. (2011). Alcohol Addiction. Retrieved from

Colder, C. R., & O’Connor, R. (2002). Attention bias and disinhibited behaviour as predictors of alcohol use and enhancement reasons for drinking. Psychology of Addictive Behaviours, 16(4), 325-332. doi:10.1037/0893-164X.16.4.325

Cooper, M. (1994). Motivations for alcohol use among adolescents: Development and validation of a four-factor model. Psychological Assessment, 6(2), 117-128. doi:10.1037/1040-3590.6.2.117

Cooper, M., Frone, M. R., Russell. M., & Mudar, P. (1995). Drinking to regulate positive and negative emotions: A motivational model of alcohol use. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 990-1005. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.990

Cox, W., & Klinger, E. (1988). A motivational model of alcohol use. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 97(2), 168-180. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.97.2.168

Higgins, R., & Marlatt, G. (1975). Fear of interpersonal evaluation as a determinant of alcohol consumption in male social drinkers. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 84(6), 644-651. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.84.6.644

Healy, J. (Eds.). (2007). How to cut down alcohol consumption from alcohol abuse. Issues in society: Vol. 252. New South Wales: Australia: The Spinny Press.

Kuntsche, E., Wiers, R. W., Jansen, T., & Gmel, G. (2010). Same wording, distinct concepts? Testing differences between expectancies and motives in a mediation model of alcohol outcomes. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 18(5), 436-444. doi:10.1037/a0019724

Lewis, M. A., Hove, M., Whiteside, U. Lee, C. M., Kirkeby, B. S., Oster-Aaland, L., Neighbors, C., & Larimer, M. E. (2008). Fitting in and feeling fine: Conformity and coping motives as mediators of the relationship between social anxiety and problematic drinking. Psychology of Addictive Behaivours, 22(1), 58-67. doi:10.1037/0893-164X.22.1.58

MacLean, M. G., & Lecci, L. (2000). A comparison of models of drinking motives in a university sample. Psychology of Addictive Behaviours, 14(1), 83-87. doi:10.1037/0893-164X.14.1.83

Martens, M. P., Cox, R. H., Beck, N. C., & Heppner, P. (2003). Measuring motivations for intercollegiate athlete alcohol use: a confirmatory factor analysis of the drinking motive measure. Psychological Assessment, 15(2), 235-239. doi:10.1037/1040-3590.15.2.235

Martens, M. P., Rocha, T. L., Martin, J. L., & Scerraro, H. F. (2008). Drinking motives and college students: Further examination of a four-factor model. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(2), 289-295. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.55.2.289

Newcomb, M. D., Chou, C., Bentler, P. M., & Huba, G. J. (1988). Cognitive motivations for drug use among adolescents: Longitudinal tests of gender differences and predictors of change in drug use. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 35(4), 426-438. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.35.4.426

Read, J. P., Wood, M. D., Kahler, C. W., Maddock, J. E., & Palfai, T. P. (2003). Examining the role of drinking motives in college student alcohol use and problems. Psychology of Addictive Behaivours, 17(1), 13-23. doi:10.1037/0893-164X.17.1.13

Vaughn, E. L. , Corbin, W. R., & Fromme, K. (2009). Academic and social motives and drinking behaviour. Psychology of Addicitve Behaviours, 23(4), 564-576. doi:10.1037/a0017331

World Health Organisation. (2011). Global status report on alcohol and health. Retrieved from