Economists and sociologists who study alcohol consumption patterns often link them to people's living conditions and human capital such as education, work experience, and knowledge. Researchers of the HSE Laboratory for Labour Market Studies and the HSE Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology have found that non-cognitive skills developed in childhood and adolescence can have a major effect on the likelihood of alcohol abuse later in life and can diminish the role of education in this respect. The paper has been published in the Journal of Comparative Economics.
While the rates of alcohol consumption in Russia are lower today than in the 1990s, they remain quite high. As in many other northern countries, people in Russia tend to prefer strong drinks, which results in higher alcohol-related mortality compared to southern regions. Effective strategies to reduce excessive alcohol use must be based on a good understanding of the factors that contribute to problem drinking and the identification of groups at high risk.
Many earlier studies discuss the effects of so-called noncognitive skills, or personality traits, on a person's wellbeing and life outcomes such as educational attainment, employment, salary, and life expectancy. The same skills have been found to play a role in alcohol consumption patterns. First, noncognitive skills are linked to educational attainment which, in turn, can mitigate the risk of excessive alcohol consumption: better educated people have been found to be less prone to heavy drinking. Second, children develop noncognitive skills in a family context, and parents' excessive alcohol consumption makes it less likely for their child to receive a good education and more likely to become a problem drinker later in life. Third, personality traits predict specific personal motives for alcohol consumption, such as being unable to resist peer pressure, wishing to strengthen a relationship or coping with negative emotions.
Researchers of the HSE Faculty of Economic Sciences used the Big Five personality traits model, which comprises five major categories of noncognitive skills: openness to experiences (curiosity, creativity), conscientiousness (diligence, self-discipline), extraversion (sociability, confidence, activity), agreeableness (willingness to cooperate and compromise), and neuroticism (anxiety, impulsivity).
The study used 2016–2018 data from the Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey (RLMS-HSE) on more than 10,000 respondents, including their gender, age, education, income, family status, place of residence, nationality, religious affiliation, etc. The respondents were asked, among other things, whether they consumed alcohol and whether they had consumed any in the previous 30 days. Those who answered 'yes' to the latter question were further asked about the type and amount of alcohol consumed and the frequency of consumption. A separate block of questions was designed to measure the respondents’ noncognitive skills.
Men were found to drink four times as much as women, adjusted for alcohol volume and strength. People aged 30 to 39 were more likely than other age groups to consume alcohol (more than half reported having drunk at least once in the previous month), and people with college or university degrees were more likely to drink in moderation rather than excessively, compared to those without a degree.
Among those who abstained from alcohol, there were significantly more people with high levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness and fewer extroverts. These personality traits were also correlated with the amount of alcohol consumed. Those in the top quarter of the most diligent and disciplined were found to drink on average half as much as those in the bottom quarter in terms of these traits. Emotional instability had the opposite effect of increasing the average amount of alcohol consumed.
There was an important finding not observed in earlier studies: removing the variables related to noncognitive skills significantly increased the effect of education on alcohol consumption. This finding suggests that education and the risk of alcohol abuse are not related directly, but through personality traits.
Given the significant effect of noncognitive skills on alcohol consumption, one clear takeaway is that such skills should become an important focus of educational policy, in particular at the preschool and early school stages. An important feature of non-cognitive skills is that they are mainly developed in childhood and become less sensitive to external influence over time, while having a long-term cumulative effect on seemingly unrelated behaviours such as one's decision to study for a degree and choice of career to their willingness to get vaccinated or proneness to addictions. Therefore, for the best results in trying to decrease alcohol consumption, positive skills such as conscientiousness and emotional stability should be cultivated from a very early age. It may be too late to address them in tertiary education.
The study was a joint project with the HSE Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology.