Concrete plans in brief interventions for heavy drinkers

A recent study showed that very brief interventions with heavy drinkers were far more effective when the participants were asked to choose or to make concrete plans for alcohol reduction.

The British study was carried out in public places, such as shopping centres, where 471 people were asked to take part in a survey about alcohol. Around half agreed and were then given a questionnaire to fill in that contained information about safe drinking levels. The participants were randomly given one of four versions of the questionnaire, three of which had a different instruction at the end. The three instructions to participants were either:

  1. A request to write down a plan for reduced consumption.
  2. A choice between one of three pre-set reduction plans based upon an if-then model.
  3. An instruction to formulate their own if-then plan.

(An if-then plan makes an intention for future behaviour change more concrete by putting it into the format of ‘if this happens, then I will do/not do this‘.)

Around a third of the respondents were exceeding recommended safe drinking levels.

Follow up surveys a month later showed no changes to the drinking levels of the two-thirds of respondents who were not exceeding safe drinking levels. However, amongst the heavier drinkers there was a marked difference between those given the questionnaire with no instructions, who reported almost no change, and those given questionnaires with one of the three instructions listed above. Those given instructions tended to reduce their alcohol consumption, with the more concrete if-then plans prompting a significantly greater change.

The period before follow-up was fairly short and the effects of these interventions may not be long lasting. However, the study suggests that even a very brief, self-administered intervention can have an impact upon heavy drinking, particularly if the intervention includes support in making a simple, concrete plan for behaviour change. Asking participants to choose or to make an if-then plan may help to fix an intention and to rehearse its implementation.

A report and discussion on the study can be found here.

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