an interesting TED talk, here – the three-minute bit I’m talking about starts at 12.58.

she says that social scientists prove that social norms are the most effective yet underestimated source of motivation.

she uses the example of how hotels try to get their guests to re-use their towels, with those little notices saying, ‘save the planet, re-use your towel’, because this is what, when surveyed, guests say would change their behaviour. whereas in fact, that is the least effective means (38% behaviour change) compared to telling other guests that 75% of people re-used their towels (58% behaviour change).

I am not advocating that we all become faceless, identikit conformers to a fixed identity.

a rarely released photograph of the September 2014 London meet-up. looking forward to the next one, ladies!

what I would like us to do is to harness this power and use it to serve us in our goals of become the most like our own unique selves that we can possibly be.

I think we can harness the power of social norms in these three main ways:

firstly, by truly understanding what our society’s actual norms are.  I left a gargantuan comment on Allie’s brilliant blog post recently, which I hope she won’t mind me reproducing here:

‘one set of statistics that I think is vitally important to understanding the alcohol industry’s tactics is the profile of alcohol consumption. looking at what proportion of drinkers make up what volume of alcohol sales. there’s some typical data, for the US, here:

the shocking fact is that the top ten percent of drinkers in the US consume 73.85 drinks per week (always knew I was in the top ten percent…). but the corollary to that is that everyone else is drinking hardly anything.

the norm that the alcohol advertising industry is portraying to us is as fake as Kim Kardashian. it is NOT the case that ‘everyone’ is drinking merrily but responsibly. the alcohol industry portrays a ‘norm’ of regular, moderate consumption, whereas in fact 60% of Americans consume half a drink or less a week.

and the commercial fist in the velvet glove is that the alcohol industry has a vested interest at keeping those heavy drinkers going, because they make up such a vast proportion of their sales. as the article says,

‘The top 10% of drinkers account for more than half of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. The heaviest drinkers are of greatly disproportionate importance to the sales and profitability of the alcoholic beverage industry. If the top decile could be induced to curb their consumption to that of the next lower group (the ninth decile) then total ethanol sales would fall by 60%.’

yup. FALL BY SIXTY PERCENT. how do you like them apples, alcohol industry?

and that is why the best proven mechanism for reducing alcohol consumption, minimum pricing, is being fought tooth and nail through the Scottish courts by the booze lawyers. that’s why the sanctimonious piping of the drink-industry sponsored website telling us how to moderate our consumption is a whited sepulchre.

because they WANT us to drink at harmful levels. because that’s where their market lies.

well, not to me. no more. yes – absolutely. fuck ‘em. fuck ‘em sideways and every which way till Christmas. spread the word. maintain the rage! hope this wasn’t too long a comment…thank you for another great post, Allie.’

this is the one fact I hope that everyone trying to remove alcohol from their lives can absorb: not everyone drinks at excessive levels. and I think we get that. but I think ‘problem drinkers’ have been demonised for so long by the drinks industry that we think we are a teeeeeeny weeny percentage. if you had asked me, while I was still drinking, what proportion of drinkers that was, I would have said, maybe…0.005%? and everyone else drinking moderately? and that is JUST. NOT. TRUE.

the social norm is that everyone else drinks hardly anything. and that, in fact, by aligning ourselves with the 30% of non-drinkers (per the study referred to in that report) we are in fact closer to the social norm than being in the 10% of harmful drinkers.

I’ve had a bit more of a look at that data since posting it on Allie’s blog. because, to be honest, I found it hardly credible. surely it can’t actually be true? for example, isn’t the UK a heavier drinking country than the US?

OECD alcohol consumption data per capita gives figures of 10 litres per head of pure alcohol for the UK, and 8.6 litres per head for the US. one figure I have always found hard to track down for the UK is the proportion of people who don’t drink at all (I expect Lou has a cross reference at her fingertips but I can’t find it at the moment!) but my understanding is that it is about 20% in the UK (post edited to correct: it’s actually 15% here. thanks Lou!). so, yes, we are a heavier drinking country.

nonetheless, the Pareto Principle, which states that 20% of the customers generate 80% of the sales, which is that referred to in the original article, holds true in the UK, too. according to the NHS Choices website, 24% of people in the UK consume alcohol at harmful levels – which is entirely consistent with the findings in that American study – eighth quartile – 6 drinks a week. ninth quartile: 15 drinks a week. 10th quartile: 74 drinks a week.

okay, enough statistics, folks! take away message – when we choose to not drink at all, we are in fact nearer the norm than the exception.

second point: “but all my friends drink like I used to!” ah. here’s the tricky bit. as boozers we surrounded ourselves with heavy drinkers. we self-selected our norms so that we were comfortable with them. and in order to maximise our chances of staying sober, there’s a good chance we’ll have to leave those drinking buddies behind. and that can be tough. I know it can. I have walked away from friendships myself that meant a lot to me. I have forsworn a substance that formed the biggest bond I had with some particular family members. that feels like cutting off your own arm with a penknife, doesn’t it? well, sometimes that is necessary, to save your own life. and if you have more in common with them than the booze, the friendship will survive. and if it doesn’t, what have you lost?

third and final point: when we find new, sober worlds, we can live in them until their perspectives become our own. I have such huge gratitude for everyone who has devoted their time to this online sober space, making it a safe haven for me in times of trouble, and a place of celebration in times of joy. thirstystill called her blog her ‘sober hearth’ which I just love as an image.

thank you for sitting beside my fire with me. tell me, what do you see in the flames?