Binge drinking is “the rapid consumption of large amounts of alcohol, especially by young people, leading to serious anti-social and criminal behavior in urban centres,” say Paul Ormerod, an economist at Volterra Consulting in London, also linked to the University of Durham.
Binge drinking is a growing problem in city centers in the UK, with some 1.5 million binge drinking “events” across the country each week. Ormerod says:
“Vomiting, collapsing in the street, shouting and chanting loudly, intimidating passers-by and fighting are now regular night-time features of many British towns and cities. A particularly disturbing aspect is the huge rise in drunken and antisocial behaviour amongst young females.”
You know who you are. But why has this behavior spread so rapidly?
Ormerod and his mate Greg Wiltshire point to an interesting study of patterns of health conducted in the US, in which people were found to be much more likely to become obese if they had an outsize friend or to stop smoking if their spouse had also stopped. Perhaps a similar kind of pattern occurs in binge drinkers, Ormerod reasoned.
To find out, he commissioned a survey of Britain’s youth, 504 18-24 year-olds, in which he asked them about their drinking patterns and those of their friends, family and colleagues.
The results are striking. It turns out that:
- 30 per cent of binge drinkers think that ‘all’ or ‘almost all’ of their work colleagues binge drink, compared to only 8 per cent of non-binge drinkers.
- 54 per cent of binge drinkers think that “all” or “almost all” of their friends are binge drinkers, compared to 15 per cent of non-binge drinkers for whom “all” or “almost all” friends are binge drinkers.
- only 3 per cent of binge drinkers have “no” or “hardly any” friends that binge drink compared to 19 per cent of non-binge drinkers.
Clearly the behaviour of people you know is linked in a significant way to your drinking habits.
Ormerod then used the data to determine that the kind of network that best describes the way these people are linked is a small world: a network in which people are linked by a small number of steps in the manner of six degrees of separation.
And if that’s the case, binge drinking is a fashion that must be spreading like like tie-dyed T-shirts and nose studs.
That’s interesting because the fact that this is a small world network could have important implications for how to tackle the problem.
One line of thought has focused on individuals who are linked to a large number of others. These so-called hubs can have a disproportionate effect on the spread of behaviours and so targeting them would be one way to halt the spread of binge drinking.
For example, it may be that the behaviour of film stars or other widely known figures can have a disproportionate effect on the behaviour of others.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case with binge drinking. Hubs only exist in scale free networks in which the distance between people varies as a power law (so the network looks the same regardless of the resolution at which you view it).
If Ormerod’s conclusion is confirmed (he needs more data to nail it) and the pattern of binge drinking in the UK really do reflect a small world network, then this kind of targeting is unlikely to work.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0806.3176: ‘Binge’ Drinking in the UK: a Social Network Phenomenon