March 11, 2014

SCIENCE: Think a hangover will teach you not to drink? Guess again. It only delays the next drink if you’re short on cash.

Ever wake up with a crippling hangover and think “never doing that again”? Most people who have had the experience end up drinking again before too long—if they didn’t, there probably wouldn’t be much of a market for all the vintners, brewers, and distillers currently in business. Still, you might think that a bad hangover would cause people to exercise a bit more caution with their alcohol intake.

If you thought so, you’d probably be wrong, at least according to research that went out last week. Some researchers set up a few hundred young Missouri relatives with electronic diaries and asked them to track their drinking and hangover experiences. (In academic jargon, this approach is apparently termed an “Ecological Momentary Assessment.”) Twenty-one days and a hefty 2,276 “drinking episodes” later, the researchers looked at whether incidents of hangover—of which there were 463—had little effect on how long it took participants to have their next drink.

It initially looked like hangovers scared people off, with an average increase of six hours until the next drink among those who suffered from one. But many other factors affect drinking frequency, so the authors had to do a multivariate analysis, taking into account things like a history of alcohol abuse, the day of the week, typical drinking frequency, and so on. When these other factors were considered, the impact of hangovers largely went away.

Of course, some people respond to a hangover by taking a drink as a cure — I used to do that in college, a habit that I outgrew along with drinking enough to be hung over — so that may affect things. Science also says that “hair of the dog” trick doesn’t work, but it sure seemed to . . . .