In the U.S., men are more likely than women to drink alcohol, more likely to drink in dangerous ways and more likely to experience certain forms of severe alcohol-related harm. Researchers regularly look for underlying explanations for these gender-based differences.
In a 2014 Clinical Psychological Science study, researchers suggested one cause might be how men drinking respond to smiling and other rewarding social cues common to alcohol-rich environments.
Gender and alcohol standards
For reasons linked to both average weight and typical speed of alcohol processing, men can consume more alcohol than women without becoming intoxicated or exceeding daily and weekly guidelines for involvement in relatively safe moderate alcohol intake.
A woman who regularly consumes more than three drinks a day or seven drinks a week meets the common public health standard for dangerous heavy drinking.
Conversely, a man must regularly consume more than four drinks a day or 14 drinks a week before transitioning from moderate to heavy use.
Women also have lower minimum standards for participation in the hazardous, drunkenness-inducing practice called binge drinking. The average woman binge drinks when she consumes four or more standard alcohol servings in two hours or less; the average man binge drinks when he consumes five or more drinks in the same amount of time.
Men and alcohol problems
For both men and women, alcohol consumption rates reach their peak among individuals in their early and mid-20s. In this peak category of consumers, men are substantially more likely to drink alcohol than women. In addition, despite their higher minimum thresholds for heavy drinking and binge drinking, men of all ages are much more likely than their female counterparts to drink in dangerous ways.
Binge drinking rates, in particular, reflect a strongly increased rate of risk for men. While the typical American woman binge drinks less than three times throughout the year, the typical American man binge drinks about 13 times throughout the year. In addition, American men develop diagnosable symptoms of alcoholism (one of the two components of alcohol use disorder) more than twice as often as American women (17% of men vs. 8% of women). Other indications of gender-specific, alcohol-related harm for men include higher general chances of dying while under the influence of alcohol, higher chances of dying while driving under the influence of alcohol and higher chances of committing suicide while under the influence of alcohol.
Comparing rewarding effects of social drinking
A main motivation for alcohol consumption is the increase in pleasurable sensations associated with drinking.
In the Clinical Psychological Science report, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Sweden’s University of Oslo used information gathered from 360 men and 360 women to compare the rewarding effects of social drinking in the two genders. All of the participants in both groups were free from any diagnosable alcohol problems. One-third of the participants received alcohol in a typical social setting; another third of the participants knowingly received a non-alcoholic drink in the same setting. The remaining participants also interacted in the same social setting and received non-intoxicating drinks designed to mimic the appearance of alcohol.
In order to gauge the relative social rewards of drinking for men and women, the researchers used video recordings to compare the impact that smiling had on the drinking behaviors of the male study participants to the impact that smiling had on the drinking behaviors of the female study participants.
Men respond to smiling more
The researchers concluded that men consuming alcohol respond to smiling more than women consuming alcohol. Specifically, men consuming alcohol have an increased tendency to “pass” their smiling behaviors on to other men. The researchers also concluded that smiles passed between male alcohol consumers were more likely to be “contagious” when they supported the establishment of social ties and either contributed to an existing general good mood or disrupted an existing general “down” mood.
Overall, the study’s authors believe that men who drink alcohol in social situations may view alcohol intake as an unusually rewarding behavior, and may therefore increase their level of consumption in social environments that contain other men (especially other men drinking alcohol). Interestingly, the presence of women in a social group apparently disrupts the contagious qualities of smiling and alcohol use.