Binge Drinkers Rule the World

An upcoming study shows that the more you engage in binge drinking, the higher your social status. But that doesn’t mean you should start hitting the bottle.

Frank Ockenfels / AMC

A new study is giving some truth to Don Draper’s whiskey-fueled success.

Titled Drinking to Reach the Top, the analysis shows that men and women who engage in more frequent heavy drinking occupy higher statuses within their friend groups. Set to be to be published in the October issue of Addictive Behaviors, it provides hard data to support what shows like Mad Men preach: Alcohol is a high achiever’s secret weapon.

Dr. Tara Dumas, the lead author behind the study, recruited 357 young adults between May and July 2012, en route to bars in downtown Ontario with their friends. Using three different surveys, she and her three colleagues analyzed how much heavy-drinking episodes—both the number of drinks consumed and frequency of them—played into status. Their answer backed up Dumas’ hypothesis: that more frequent drinking—consuming a larger number of drinks during one's episode—and engaging in more heavy drinking occasions in the past year, would be associated with higher peer group status.

“Research already demonstrates that young people use alcohol for social means…as a way of fitting in,” Dumas tells The Daily Beast. “Our research further suggests that young people might be gaining social status benefits via their heavy drinking, or that higher social status might encourage riskier drinking practices among young people.”

The results are an important indicator of how heavier drinkers are viewed in society. “Our measure of social status in this study is somewhat akin to social power within the friend group, with higher status group members being more popular and having more control over valuable group resources, such as group decisions,” she says.

But the phenomenon did have a threshold. Participants who said they’d consumed more than 12 drinks in one sitting generally showed no more social clout—and, in some cases, less—than those who drank less.

The data adds to an earlier study of 1,600 college students published in 2012 by the American Sociological Association, which found that binge-drinking college students were generally happier than their counterparts. “Students, who are considered more socially powerful, drink more,” said Carolyn L. Hsu, co-author of the study. “Binge drinking then becomes associated with high status and the ‘cool’ students on campus.”

In order to observe gender disparity among drinking habits, the men and women in Dumas’ study were analyzed separately. Drinking habits as an indicator of status was more pronounced in men than women, which raises the question as to whether males buy into this concept more than females. “Not necessarily,” says Dumas. “We found that young men who engaged in more heavy episodic drinking had higher social status in their friend groups than their peers who drank heavily less often—however, we also found that frequency with women.”

The results are the first of their kind to show how young adults’ drinking on a single occasion can affect their social status—and run in direct conflict to a plethora of studies on the negative impacts for the Americans who took part in 1.5 billion episodes of binge drinking from 1993 to 2001, according to a study from JAMA.

So while men and women who drink the heaviest may be benefitting short term—they’re likely to pay for it in the long run. In a recent American Journal of Pediatrics study, researchers found underage binge drinking to be a direct contribution to the three leading causes of death—unintentional injury, homicide, and suicide. Those who binge-drank were more likely to report poor school performance, sexual assault, attempted suicide, and the use of illicit drugs.

A sobering report from the National Institute of Health offers an even more in-depth look at the potentially tragic effects of alcohol consumption, including cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, cirrhosis, and a higher risk for mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control, excessive drinking kills approximately 88,000 Americans per year—making it the third-leading cause of lifestyle-related cause of death in the U.S.

But it’s not just getting wasted that’s dangerous. Just this week the British Journal of Medicine released a study showing that even one small alcoholic beverage per day can raise your risk of heart disease—findings which call into question the concept that drinking reduces one's risk of heart disease.

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Rather than a how-to for winning social clout, Dumas hopes her study sheds light on how deep our alcohol-worshipping runs, and how potentially dangerous that is to society. “Our research further suggests that young people might be gaining social status benefits via their heavy drinking or that higher social status might encourage riskier drinking practices among young people,” she says. “Instead of inspiring young people to drink, we hope that our findings encourage prevention programming that addresses young people’s status-related concerns around drinking and teaches them how to be socially integrated while also adopting responsible drinking practices.”