Following alcoholics for decades

McLeans has an interesting interview with George Vaillant about, “the surprising things you find out about people if you follow them for long enough.”

What’s so different and interesting about this study is that it followed the subjects for decades from a pretty young age. Their subjects were college sophomores when the study began and their selection was not based on any problems or characteristics. So, they studied them before, during and after their active alcoholism.

Here are a few of the better bits.

On alcoholism and recovery:

Q: What, then, are the great lessons to be drawn from the study?

A: Some of the most important ones involved alcoholism. About 50 per cent of alcoholics recover, but a remarkable percentage of those do so with AA. The fact that this study followed up with these men on 60 different occasions with regard to their alcoholism over a period of 50 years did allow us to identify what made a difference.

You’ll have to read the Natural History of Alcoholism, because he didn’t expound on that in the interview.

On childhood unhappiness and alcoholism:

Q: A lot of long-held theories flew out the window over the decades thanks to your work.

A: One of the simplest examples was the notion that unhappy childhoods cause alcoholism. What a study like this shows is that, first, lots of alcoholics invent an unhappy childhood to justify their drinking. Second: if an alcoholic’s childhood is miserable, it’s because a blood relative has alcoholism. If the unhappy childhood is the result of an alcoholic step-parent, the person doesn’t drink to relieve the misery. So it’s the genetic component of alcoholism that matters.

On alcoholism’s toll (Too bad these lessons need to be re-learned!):

Q: You argue that alcohol abuse is the most ignored causal factor in modern social science. Why?

A: Because it’s much more fun to pay mind to nice people than to angry, passive-aggressive people, and the disease of alcoholism makes people angry and dishonest. If you look at the major books on marriage, alcoholism is mentioned nowhere in the index as a cause of unhappiness. Yet 57 per cent of all the divorces in the Harvard sample occurred when one or other spouse were drinking alcoholically. The alcohol abuse almost always preceded the trouble in the men’s life. Another dramatic example: depression does not lead to alcoholism, whereas alcoholism leads to depression. If you take 100 cases, you can find two or three exceptions, but that’s all. People didn’t really know that before the Grant study.

[hat tip: Jeff Jay]

3 thoughts on “Following alcoholics for decades

  1. Lovely piece of work and he’s a great speaker too. I had the privilege of hearing him on a trip to the USA a couple of years ago.

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