Why ‘Dry January’ Works so Well

Every year millions of people around the world start the calendar with a ‘Dry January’. It is the name given to the one-month alcohol-free challenge. Although the one-month period is not that long, the change in behavior is pretty significant for a lot of participants. So why do people who by their own account often lack control over their alcohol intake, can suddenly turn into a teetotaler when January arrives?

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

Reading time: 5 Minutes

The story of ‘Dry January‘ started in 2011 when a woman named Emily Robinson signed up for her first half marathon. It was scheduled in February. Although she liked the challenge, she was not a big fan of the rigorous training schedule. So to make life easier, she decided to give up alcohol for the month of January. And it worked. She lost weight, slept better and felt more energetic. Other people followed suit. And when she joined Alcohol Change UK the next year, a national campaign took off.

To drink or not to drink?

I liked drinking alcohol when I was younger. The taste was good, the feeling even better. Three or four night a week of heavy drinking wasn’t unusual. However, it started to wear me down. My energy level was low and I would feel more and more gloomy after each night of drinking. The intention of a night out with just two or three alcoholic beverages went straight out the window after my first Bacardi Limón & coke was downed. It just didn’t work for me. So one day I decided I had had enough. I stopped drinking alcohol when I was 20 years old and it was a significant change for me back then.

Most people who participate in ‘Dry January’ see a whole host of benefits.

The power of default

The day I decided to stop drinking, I changed my default. A default is an option that is selected automatically when no further action is taken (Thaler & Sunstein). My automatically selected behavior went from ‘Yes, but I try to keep it down‘ to ‘No‘ overnight. Whatever the occasion, whatever the location, I would not have an alcoholic beverage. Although the change in behavior was swift and decisive, it rather surprisingly wasn’t that hard to follow up on. Certainly not as challenging as sticking to two or three drinks on a night out.

The power of default has been known to behavioral scientist for quite some time. The best known example is that of organ donation. Most people avoid making an active choice about being a donor, passively accepting the default option. That is the reason why there are large differences in organ donation rates between neighboring countries. Countries with an opt-out system on being an organ donor often have 98% of their citizens registered as a donor. While countries with an opt-in system mostly hover at a measly 10%. This is the reason why the default in The Netherlands was switched in 2020 from an opt-in to an opt-out system. So to make use of the advantages behavioral science has to offer.

Defaults help decision making become simple, but they are not always as straightforward as it may seem.

Mass defaults or personalised defaults

The Cognitive Psychologist Daniel Goldstein and his colleagues distinguish between mass defaults and personalized defaults. Both mass defaults and personalized defaults provide an option that is selected automatically when no further action is taken, but personalized defaults also takes individual requirements into account.

When I changed my own default and quit drinking, I also noticed others using a personalized default on me. After a few parties without drinking alcohol, people around me would by default ask if I would like a soda or water; if Sander didn’t drink the last few times I saw him, why even bother with asking him if he wants a beer. Never even bringing the temptation to me. This is called a persistent default and is based on previous decisions I had made. I even recognized it in people I first encountered. If I opted for a soda or glass of water, people would ask if I wanted a refill instead of offering me something else.

If you quit alcohol only for the month of January, it will be hard to get to the point of persistence. But it would be helpful to share it with people around you. If they know you joined ‘Dry January’, they might help you stay on track or at least reduce the temptation.

Making life easy

Whether you stop drinking for a month or for eternity, the power of default can make life a little easier. Willpower is limited, as my friend Niels Vink recently wrote about in his blog ‘Supporting Your Good Intentions for the New Year‘. Having to make a decision over and over whether to have another drink or not on your night out is exhausting. Eventually your willpower will be depleted. A default set before you even go out the door, can be very beneficial in keeping the promise you have made to yourself.

My individual preference for not drinking alcohol has given me much in terms of energy, health and overall wellbeing, but I certainly don’t like telling other people what to do. If, however, you feel alcohol is taking more from you than it is giving back, try the default of abstinence. It may prove to be much easier than trying to cut down on alcohol.

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Sander Palm (1980) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral economist. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has a Master of Science in Marketing (VU University Amsterdam).

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me


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1 thought on “Why ‘Dry January’ Works so Well”

  1. If you are setting your own defaults for new behavior this new year, use the Fresh Start Effect: you are more likely to act toward a goal on, or after, events that represent a new beginning.

    So when starting with new defaults for your behavior, choose a specific meaningful moment to start your new behavior. Go beyond the traditional holidays, and take other life events, such as the day after your birthday (for starting dieting) or start of the summer (for starting your running habit).

    Furthermore, make sure you are proud of every step moving towards your new default. Remember why you started your behavior and celebrate every time, for example when you do not have a hangover (from stopping drinking and admire your productivity that morning). Also share your success with friends and family, for example share that you walked 15 minutes every other day last week (when starting a walking habit).

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