How Understanding Russian Drinking Habits Can Change Your Life

Habits, as it turns out, can be heavily influenced by one's environment and tend to stick. How can you use this to your advantage?

Aug 10, 2014 at 11:00AM

Flickr / vvillamon.

What makes you a vodka lover or a beer lover -- or neither?

You might think this has everything to do with your particular palate and appreciation for certain flavors, but a National Bureau of Economic Research paper by researchers Lorenz Kueng and Evgeny Yokovlev shows otherwise. 

And yes, I agree that we should just take a moment to appreciate that there was a study conducted on this subject. 

In an enormous experiment covering several generations of Russian drinking behavior, the authors found that people tend to drink -- and to stick with -- whatever alcohol was abundant when their drinking habits were formed. In other words, vodka lovers may just be that way not because of their uniquely undying affection for that "crystalline, nuanceless spirit," but because it's what was around when they started drinking.

This might sound rather mundane and widely irrelevant. But the implications of this study's results for our own habits -- drinking or otherwise -- are potentially enormous. 

Where it begins: A natural experiment
The gold standard in social science is an experiment that can prove causality, but these are -- unfortunately -- rather complicated subjects: it's not always so easy to tease out relevant results in a laboratory.

Thus, social scientists (and their adoring fans) all cheer when the world provides us with a "natural experiment." 

A natural experiment arises when some change or event in the world has an effect on a single variable. In this case, the Russian alcohol market encountered two natural experiments that the researchers used: Gorbachev's anti-alcohol policy, which limited access to legally produced vodka; and the fall of Communism, which liberalized alcohol markets and in particular the market for beer.

Studying these two changes facing Russian consumers, the researchers took a look at whether and how consumption patterns of vodka and beer changed among Russian men as their environment changed. 

What they found is quite fascinating. 

Habits: They're not so individualized -- and are strangely persistent 
The results? To put it simply, once your drinking habits are established, chances are you'll stick with them.


Flickr / juxtapozerz.

The researchers found that this doesn't just apply to heavy drinkers: all drinkers tend to stick with what they know and like. So those Russian drinkers who -- so to speak -- grew up with vodka tended to stick with it, even though beer became widely available in the 1990s.

On the other hand, younger drinkers surrounded by beer tend to choose -- and stick with -- beer. 

In other words, change the environment, and people's preferences shift accordingly. 

Changing your habits -- and your identity?  
This means that what you "like" -- whether it's saving money, spending money, exercising, or avoiding exercise at all costs -- might have a lot less to do with your personality than you realize. In fact, you might be choosing certain things for no other reason than it's what you'd gotten used to. 

As happiness writer Gretchen Rubin points out, you might think of your habits as part of your identity -- maybe you're a "vodka guy" or a "beer lover." But the Russian study shows that becoming one or the other doesn't appear to have all that much to do with identity at all. 

You're still a unique snowflake, but you can change
This means that if you want to change a habit, you might be wise to consider that the habit might have stuck in the first place simply because of inertia. This is also good news for those habits you're  now trying to implement -- thanks to inertia, once you've become an exercise buff or a cheese connoisseur, you're likely to stay that way. 

Enforcing positive changes could very well be to your benefit: This study found that the simple generational change in preferences from vodka to beer could reduce male mortality in Russia by 25% over the coming decades.

On that note, it's time to get back to that new exercise habit -- have I mentioned I'm a serious yogi now? 

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