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How much alcohol do you drink? The clue may be in the values of your national culture

Countries where people tend to value autonomy and harmony the most tend to drink more alcohol, our latest study shows. And countries where people are more likely to value hierarchy, security and obedience, tend to drink less alcohol.

Alcohol consumption can have devastating consequences for individuals and society. For example, in 2012 alcohol consumption was estimated to have caused 3.3m deaths globally, a figure that corresponds to 5.9% of all deaths that year. It is strongly associated with hypertension, cirrhosis of the liver and chronic pancreatitis. Drinking alcohol also has an economic cost of around one per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in developed countries, so our findings have important implications for how international agencies, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), tackle problems associated with alcohol consumption.

What’s good

Politicians and business leaders like to talk about values, and, indeed values are important. Studies have shown that they are related to many important aspects of our lives. People’s values predict, among other things, pro-environmental behaviour, prejudice and well-being.

Some researchers have also studied cultural values. Cultural values can be measured by averaging the responses to a value survey from many people living in one country. They express what is considered good and important in a society.

These surveys of cultural values have helped to provide new insights about cross-cultural differences. For example, countries where people place a high importance on values related to autonomy, such as freedom or broadmindedness, are more peaceful. In contrast, countries where people place more importance on traditional values, such as security or obedience, are less peaceful. People living in autonomous countries are also, on average, more satisfied with their lives.

We wanted to know if cultural values are associated with alcohol consumption.

Problems associated with alcohol cost one per cent of GDP. Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock

Autonomy and harmony

Because cultural values and alcohol consumption are linked to both education and income, we statistically controlled for them in our analyses. In this way, we could be sure that any association between cultural values and alcohol consumption was not caused by education or income.

We found that countries with populations that valued autonomy and harmony, such as France and Germany, tended to have higher average levels of alcohol consumption. However, countries such as Iran and Senegal, where people hold more traditional values dear, such as hierarchy and being part of a collective, drank less alcohol. For example, the French and Germans drink on average 12 litres of pure alcohol a year, whereas Iranians and Senegalese drink around one litre a year.

European countries are more autonomous and less traditional on average than non-European countries. They also drink more alcohol. We therefore repeated the analysis in the 35 European countries and 39 non-European countries separately. We found the same pattern of results in each of the two subsets.

This was broadly consistent with our expectations, although the finding that harmony values were associated with more alcohol consumption was a surprise. Most research has found that autonomy is associated with a range of positive outcomes, such as peacefulness and higher well-being. But our research shows that autonomy also has a downside.

We believe that the link between valuing harmony and drinking more alcohol can be explained by considering that harmony, according to the accepted definition “emphasises fitting into the world as it is, trying to understand and appreciate rather than to change”. In line with this, social motives related to harmony, such as having a good time with friends, have been found to be predictors of alcohol consumption.

Over the past decades, many countries have undergone a “silent revolution” from valuing tradition to autonomy, because basic needs are being met thanks to growing affluence. Our results suggest that the WHO, and other international health organisations, might want to implement preemptive measures, such as health campaigns against alcohol consumption, in countries where values are becoming increasingly autonomous.

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