Social Networks Influence Drinking, Harvard Researchers Say

Study finds family and friends impact drinking behavior

Harvard Medical School researchers say that alcohol consumption may be influenced by drinking habits of family and friends.

Using data collected from the ongoing Framinghma Heart Study, Harvard Medical School professor and Pforzheimer House Master Nicholas A. Christakis and his colleagues were able to trace drinking patterns within social networks.

“We all intuitively have the sense that we as individuals are connected in ways that oftentimes we may not even understand,” said James N. Rosenquist, a health care policy research fellow at the Medical School and lead author of the study. “An individual’s behavior may affect others and vice versa.”

The study, published last week in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, found that after 32 years, an individual was 50 percent more likely to drink heavily—defined as more than one drink per day for women or more than two drinks for men—if friends or relatives also drank heavily.

The researchers founds that non-drinkers had a smaller influence on their social network, and an individual was 29 percent more likely to abstain if a friend or relative did not drink.


Drinking habits among co-workers and neighbors were not significantly correlated with how much an individual drank.

When asked whether the study’s findings would spur changes in alcohol consumption regulation on Harvard campus, Allison C. Hyland ’12, a Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors subcommittee member, said she believes DAPA may host more alcohol-free events, such as the “Learn to Dance Sober” event earlier this year.

According to Hyland, DAPA statistics show that the average Harvard student drinks responsibly.

Some Harvard students also disagreed with the study’s findings that heavy drinkers have a much greater influence within their social networks than non-drinkers.

One student, who chose to remain anonymous because he was under the legal drinking age, said that he believed his social network moderates how much he drinks rather than encourages him to drink more, saying that he began to drink more consciously after coming to Harvard.

“There is a stigma,” he said, “You don’t want to be the one throwing up at the party.”

The student also cited a family history of heavy drinking as another factor affecting his decision to drink more moderately,

Another student, who also chose to remain anonymous because he was not of legal drinking age, echoed similar sentiments, stating that he experienced more negative reactions to drinking at Harvard than when he went to visit a friend attending a state school.