New Zealand has a new government in place, one with, I hope, quite a different philosophy of social change to the previous one. I don’t think my health blog is necessarily the place to talk politics, but I do want to talk about different approaches to changing behaviour, sparked off by a blog post on GNIF Brain Blogger about changing student drinking behaviour.
Many students drink excessively, including underage students. There are a number of possible responses to this.
One response, which I think is completely wrongheaded, is to advocate lowering the legal drinking age. Some college presidents in the US are actually promoting this as a solution. The idea appears to be that the current drinking age is unenforcable and is leading to clandestine binge drinking, which will somehow disappear if it is made legal. To me, this is rather like advocating the decriminalization of assault in order to lower violent crime statistics. It’s been tried here – the legal drinking age in New Zealand was lowered from 21 to 18 a few years ago, over the protests of the same groups who are now, of course, dealing with the inevitable aftermath of rising youth binge drinking, crime and alcohol-related deaths. Liberalizing the laws because they’re not being observed is not a good solution.
As the Brain Blogger article points out, education – even in an educational institution – appears to have little effect on changing behaviour. Awareness campaigns attempting to convince students, through flyers and newspaper advertisements, that binge drinking is “uncool” and against campus social norms may not be that effective either.
The article concludes:
Perhaps the main motivation for why college students consume alcohol is to escape from reality, release stress and relax in a social setting. These factors are key in understanding why alcohol consumption is at an all time high among college age students, regardless of attempts by college campuses to reshape student attitudes.
Programs that focus upon constructive methods of relieving stress and encouraging students to find healthy alternatives to partying could be more effective in reducing alcohol use on college campuses. Posting flyer’s [sic] and newspaper advertisements focusing on alternatives to partying would be more helpful than pressuring students to stop drinking by deeming it “uncool.”
This, I think, goes to the heart of the issue. Changing behaviour by changing the external pressures for or against the behaviour only goes so far. People, even young people, do things for internal reasons. In particular, they do things which change their internal state for internal reasons.
What I believe is needed – not only for this issue but for many others – is to increase people’s awareness of their internal states and their ability to manage those states constructively. In other words, increase their self-awareness and self-efficacy, so that they no longer feel the need to use destructive behaviours.
There are plenty of simple techniques to increase self-efficacy, and I promote some of them right here. What I’d like to see our new government doing is what I set out to do with my clients: Increasing people’s life skills and their ability to live life positively, constructively and creatively.
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