Vice Squad
Thursday, May 06, 2004
How Much Do You Drink?

And please be as accurate as possible. It turns out that people typically underestimate their alcohol consumption by some 40 to 60 percent. (This can be determined, for instance, by comparing consumption claims with sales or tax receipts.) It isn't clear whether people purposely mislead questioners, or whether they are fooling themselves. Some new research from New Zealand confirms the longstanding "underestimation" result, while lending support to the notion that people mislead themselves. Beer drinkers in the study only underestimated by a quarter, though wine and spirit drinkers drank twice as much as they thought.

Part of the problem seems to be that the definition of a standard drink -- usually 5 ounces of wine, twelve ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of spirits -- is smaller than the units in which people actually consume alcohol -- that is, people fill their glasses with two "units" of wine instead of one unit.

Physicians understand that people are not fully forthcoming about their drinking. This presents a difficulty for people who are fastidious about keeping track of their alcohol consumption, as I am sure all Vice Squad readers are. How to respond when asked by your doctor about the extent of your drinking? Speaking the truth will cause the doc to come away with a 100% overestimate, while responding with 50% of the truth will lead the doctor to come away with the correct information -- a dilemma that might challenge the best of metaphysicians.


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