Triumph of Bacchus, by Michaelina Wautier

[Note: This column was written in late February, long before the Covid-19 crisis hit South Africa’s shores. It might be interesting to reflect which of these lessons also apply to the lockdown.]

Human behaviour is difficult to predict – and even more difficult to control. We might think we know what to do to dissuade bad behaviour, but our good intensions could easily have the opposite effect, encouraging even worse behaviour. That is why economists and other social scientists have for long insisted that we test our theories of human behaviour against real-world evidence.

There are several ways to perform such tests. The most obvious is to do this in a laboratory setting, where all things are the same and the only difference between the treatment group and the control group is the thing you wish to test. But many policies simply cannot be tested in a laboratory. Apart from policies that affect large groups of people (an interest rate hike or tax decrease), there are also individual behaviours we’d like to test, but it would be unethical to do so. Imagine, for example, you want to know the effects of alcohol abuse on university students. Any attempt to conduct an experiment where half a group of students are requested to binge drink while the other half only stay sober would, I imagine, struggle to get approval from an ethics committee.

Yet that does not mean there is nothing we can do to study the effects of binge drinking. Economists and other social scientists often use observations from the real world and, with clever research designs, can analyse not only the types of behaviour that is correlated to binge drinking, but also identify the things that cause such behaviour. Causal inference is important, because that allows us to know which policies to implement to change (or nudge) behaviour towards better outcomes.

Binge drinking, in particular, is a hot topic on university campuses, in South Africa and globally. Its consequences are well-known: in the short run, binge drinking leads to blackouts, nausea and alcohol poisoning. It affects cognitive processing, which can lead to traffic accidents and unintended sexual behaviour; in his most recent book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell uses an infamous case on a US college campus to show how alcohol abuse and the campus environment interact to produce unbelievably high rates of sexual assault. A 2017 study in Psychology & Health also note many other long-term effects of binge drinking, including poorer academic performance, weaker brain functioning, weight gain, alcohol dependence and depression. There is no doubt that society will benefit if binge drinking is eliminated entirely.

The question is how to do it. At the beginning of the academic year, Stellenbosch University, in an attempt to curb binge drinking, announced a six-month ban of alcohol within its university residences. Students – even those studying viticulture! – will not be allowed to consume a glass of wine in their dorm room or a beer in the residence canteen. All alcohol must be consumed off university property. As management note, this is a firm stand against alcohol abuse and its detrimental consequences.

One can understand their reasoning. Several terrible incidents related to alcohol abuse happened on campus in 2019. Something had to be done. Making it harder for students to consume alcohol at home would seem like an obvious way to lower consumption – and make the town a safer environment for everyone.

But, as any social scientist worth her salt would know, things are never that simple. There are several reasons why prohibition may have unintended consequences.

The first issue, and perhaps most paradoxical, is that lower consumption is not necessarily good for society. The Stellenbosch rule – which, to be fair, is also true for almost any university campus in South Africa – ignores what has been called the ‘Iron Law of Prohibition’: when alcoholic beverages are prohibited, they will become more potent. It is conceivable that instead of drinking several beers, in an attempt to avoid detection, students instead choose to buy and consume hard liquor in greater quantities. No need to hide a couple of six packs when you can just have a bottle of tequila hidden behind the socks. While overall consumption may fall, alcohol intensity will in all likelihood increase. And access to hard liquor – it has been shown – is strongly correlated with binge drinking.

Second, because the ban is only on university accommodation, there is high likelihood that students simply shift their alcohol consumption from near their dorm room to far from it. Combined with increasing intensity, this behaviour outside the safe environment of their residence could lead to reckless (sexual, driving) behaviour or, worse, expose them to opportunistic criminals who roam the streets between the pubs and the residences.

One response would be to note that technologies like Uber would reduce the likelihood of traffic accidents. But even that would forget the prevalence of unintended consequences: two studies (here and here) published at the end of last year find that when Uber arrived in a US city, road deaths did decline, but at the same time the city experienced an increase in binge drinking related incidents. Party-goers, with the knowledge that Uber is available, could now test the boundaries.

Perhaps management is correct. Perhaps a ban on alcohol consumption in residences reduces alcohol-related incidents. Even if it doesn’t, a temporary ban would give them a stronger position to negotiate a long-term solution with student leaders.

But perhaps they have it wrong. Perhaps the unintended consequences are more severe than the intended benefits. Perhaps the prohibition nudges students into drinking hard liquor more intensively. Perhaps it shifts incidents away from the campus and into town. And perhaps ridesharing apps like Uber or even a university shuttle service – all put in place with good intentions – actually just exacerbate the problem of binge drinking.

Battling Bacchus and human behaviour is difficult. What might seem like an obvious policy to curb bad behaviour, may, without good social science that account for the unintended consequences, have the opposite effect.