Your Facebook friends really want you to believe that drinking is good for your health

Have you heard the (exclusively great) news?
Have you heard the (exclusively great) news?
Image: AP Photo/Matthew Mead
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When it comes to the benefits of drinking alcohol, our Facebook friends are glad to be the bearers of good tidings. Scroll through your news feed on any given week, and you’re likely to be greeted by all kinds of happy news. A glass of wine has the same benefits as an hour at the gym. Drinking three glasses of champagne a week could help prevent Alzheimer’s. If you do happen to binge-drink, no need to worry—you can just drink more coffee to offset the toxic effects on your liver.

It’s only natural that we want to share scientific studies that appear to justify our questionable habits. Who doesn’t want to hear about how booze, cheese, chocolate, and coffee are all good for our health? Unfortunately, I’m proof positive that drinking a glass of wine every night can lead to weight gain—even when accompanied by regular exercise and an otherwise healthy diet.

In fact, a lot of us are probably operating under inaccurate impressions about the food and drink we love. And the problem can be attributed in part to the age of social media.

For most of my adult life, I was a teetotaler who drank approximately twice a year. But a few years ago, I started increasing my dose of wine to two glasses a night, every night.

The enthusiasm that folks in my Facebook feed felt for alcohol—and their frequent trumpeting of its benefits—helped me rationalize my new habit. One friend would share an article about how red wine is chockfull of reservatrol, an antioxidant that is good for your heart. Another would link to a study showing that people who abstain from drinking live shorter lives than those who drink in moderation. Kicking back with a glass of Pinot Noir seemed not only acceptable, but downright virtuous.

All the while, my jeans were starting to fit more tightly. Somehow I’d managed to gain 10 pounds in four months. When increasing my gym time and decreasing my carbs didn’t help me get back to my old weight, I started to look twice at this allegedly “healthy” habit of mine.

It turns out that what we share on Facebook is largely driven by wishful thinking. Nathaniel Barr, a professor of creative thinking at Sheridan College, says this phenomenon can be attributed to “motivated reasoning and confirmation bias.”

The average person has a “tendency to try to confirm rather than falsify one’s views,” he tells Quartz. “Motivated reasoners seek to affirm that which they already believe and quite readily dismiss contradictory evidence.” That explains why so few of my Facebook friends were sharing articles about how excessive amounts of alcohol can cause liver damageincrease the risk of certain cancers, and cause fetal alcohol syndrome in babies.

The truth is that it’s hard to draw firm conclusions on some of our most beloved and controversial foods. Given the abundance of conflicting research, whether you believe one wine study over another probably comes down to your own drinking habits–and the social circles you move in.

To explain this phenomenon, Barr points to a study about false information published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last December. “Social media can create and facilitate echo chambers wherein information is primarily spread within homogenous communities online,” Barr tells Quartz. “Those with differing views tend to keep to their own, and information and misinformation alike tend to circulate amongst those who agree with each other already.”

The problem can be made worse by a condition known as “false balance,” whereby journalists try so hard to present both sides of an issue that they give voice to bad science. As Dr. Derek Koehler at the University of Waterloo writes in a recent study for the Journal of Experimental Psychology: “Climate change is the most salient contemporary example of such an issue: Although approximately 97% of scientific reports support the claim of anthropogenic global warming, many TV and print media reports continue to include reference to, or comments by, climate change denialists.”

False balance may also be at play in recent articles that report vaping—that is, inhaling nicotine-laced, flavored vapor—is much better for you than smoking tobacco cigarettes. The study that originally inspired such positive coverage has since come under criticism. Moreover, eating a slice of cake after every meal is less likely to kill you than smoking, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy habit.

All this means is that when we share a study touting the harmlessness of saturated fats or sugar, our habit-validating impulse may be doing inadvertent harm to our friends and family. “A lot of times people ignore where [an article] is coming from,” Courtney Spritzer, co-founder of Socialfly, a New York-based social media marketing agency, tells Quartz. “What gives it credibility is the likes, shares and comments the piece gets, which is one of the dangers of social media.”

A few articles that tout questionable findings are unlikely to do excessive harm. But as a general rule, Barr recommends we scrutinize both ideas that go against our beliefs, and those we’re more likely to agree with.

So if, like me, you’re sometimes enraptured by articles that seem too good to be true, it’s a wise to do a little background research. First and foremost, click on the link that will take you to the study. Then consider a few factors. Does the study come from a peer-reviewed journal? Was it conducted on mice or rats—as is often the case–or on actual people? How large was the sample size? A study of 30 human subjects will have much less reliable information than a comprehensive study of 50,000.

It’s also worth checking to see whether the studies are longitudinal—that is, conducted over a long period of time, charting the effects at various points along the way. These kinds of studies offer more reliable intel than cross-sectional studies, which take place within a fixed point in time. Check to see who funded the study to be sure there’s no conflict of interest. And of course, do a gut check before gambling on flimsy research with your own health.

In my case, once I suspected the wine might be responsible for my weight gain, I took a break from it. To my amazement, I lost six pounds in my first week without wine alone. And I felt so much better without the regular headaches and morning-after sluggishness that I decided to save the grape for special occasions. Wine may make my heart healthier, but I can’t afford to buy a whole new wardrobe.