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Matt Field is a professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool. He researches the psychological mechanisms that underlie the development of alcohol problems and other addictions, focussing on cognitive control, impulsivity, and automatic cognitive processes. Matt appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss the effects of ‘Dry January’, when alcohol drinkers abstain for a month after Christmas.

5 tipples about Dry January

  1. It might not just be a short-term fix
    What good can come from abstaining for four weeks a year? That’s the cynical view – but Matt reveals there is evidence to suggest Dry January can have a significant impact on the long-term health of participants.

    One study found roughly half of those who signed up for Dry January were still drinking less than their original intake many months later.

    However, Matt cautions against making sweeping judgments. “People who design to take a month off may be well motivated to reduce their drinking,” he says. “It could just be that anyone who is motivated to reduce their drinking [during January] will probably have some success in the longer term.”
  2. The health impacts are quick to see
    A study in London found that successful Dry January participants entered February with strikingly improved measurements in four areas.

    Liver function measurements showed “really drastic, dramatic improvements,” according to Matt. Blood pressure readings also improved, while sleep patterns benefitted and participants also reported feeling happier.
    But Matt cautions: “Those affects will be undone if you just resume drinking as you were before.”
  3. It prompts a period of reflection
    Over the last few years, Matt has participated in Dry January. From his own experience, he believes the initiative creates a substantial pause that allows participants to understand the difference between enjoyable drinking and alcohol consumed through boredom or habit.

    It offers an opportunity, he concludes, to “pay attention to your drinking and … observe what are you doing instead of drinking. Are you missing out? Most of the time, you’ll find that you aren’t actually missing out at all.”
  4. It could make participants more consciously aware of their actions
    Matt’s research looks at cognitive control and processes across a range of behaviours – including alcohol addiction.

    Dry January is interesting, he says, because it forces participants to become more aware of their actions. “If you do Dry January, then you have to actively change your life. You have to learn new ways of behaving…maybe you get better at exercising self-control.”

    He continues: “One of the things I’m particularly interested in is how people change in the long term. Looking at how people change over the course of Dry January might be a useful model for how people actually recover from addiction.”
  5. There could also be wider lessons to learn
    Matt is keen to see whether a ‘Dry January’ approach can be replicated to other areas of people’s lives, including his own compulsion to check email.

    He suggests: “What we know about Dry January… it may apply to other behaviours that people have trouble controlling. For example, we know that in young people … it’s plain to see that they’re glued to their phones and perhaps spending a lot of time on social media.

    “It’s debatable whether that’s an addiction in the sense of if you think about alcohol addiction. But what it almost certainly is, is a habit. It’s a behaviour that’s become kind of strengthened by repeatedly doing it.”

    If you’re reading this on your phone, you’ll know exactly what he means.

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

The University of Liverpool Podcast is produced by Kate Ferrier and Simon Capewell and PodCraft Productions. George Pneumaticos is the executive producer.

Interested in learning more about the University of Liverpool’s online psychology programmes? Find out more about the MSc in Psychology and our other psychology programmes.

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