Social Drinking: Moderate Drinker vs. Alcoholic

Last Updated: June 3, 2020

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Moderate drinking is perceived as a perfectly normal and harmless activity. It is a popular way of socializing, relaxing, or celebrating special occasions.
People who get repeatedly drunk may be the only ones who get reprimanded and judged. They are perceived as engaging in risky, irresponsible behavior that could harm themselves or others. But other times, only those who can’t function normally because of their drinking are labeled as problematic, and people who drink to excess are excused because it seems they can manage their daily affairs despite their questionable habits.

Because alcohol is such a widely available product, there is confusion about what should constitute socially and medically acceptable norms of consumption. Questions of risk, reward, and possible consequences are obscured or avoided based on ingrained cultural attitudes that remain largely unchallenged.
There is no clear awareness of the differences between social drinkers, problem drinkers, and alcoholics. People are not being educated about the warning signs of alcoholism, and as a result, they are too often ignored.

What is a Social Drinker?

While there is no official social drinker definition, there are some generally accepted guidelines for safe drinking limits.

  • Men aged 21-65 should have at most 14 drinks per week, with no more than four at any one sitting.
  • Women and people over 65 should have at most 7 drinks per week, with no more than three at any one sitting.

While these guidelines may seem useful, in fact, they may have limited applicability. A true social drinking definition would have to factor in each person’s ability to handle alcohol (no two people are precisely alike here), and there is no universal standard that allows us to do so.
As it stands, the guidelines listed above might be considered unrealistic or overly restrictive in some cultures. They might make sense in a Mediterranean country like France, Italy or Spain, where it is customary to drink a glass of wine with dinner. But rigid standards don’t necessarily dovetail with the need for people in other cultures to relax and celebrate by drinking. In the United States, for example, someone who drinks larger amounts on a semi-regular basis would likely still classify themselves as a social drinker.
To correctly answer the question, what is a social drinker, we must develop a social drinking definition that is based more on actual consequences than an arbitrary standard. We can say that a social drinker is someone who engages in regular alcohol consumption in various social settings, without creating obvious life disruptions or severe physical, mental, personal or financial problems.

Social Drinking Behavior

If someone is the typical social drinker, it means they:

  • Drink occasionally and only in certain social situations.
  • Seldom if ever drink to the point of intoxication.
  • Seldom if ever say or do anything they regret while intoxicated.
  • Do not get in trouble with other people or with the law because of alcohol use.
  • Do not spend more than they can afford on alcohol.
  • Do not think about alcohol when they’re sober.
  • Do not question their alcohol consumption.
  • Do not face scrutiny or criticism from family or friends because of their drinking.

couple drinks red wine

Expected Benefits of Social Drinking

Why do social drinkers consume alcohol at all? These are some of the reasons:

  • To relax. Many people who live stressful lifestyles (which is just about everyone these days) come to rely on a drink or two, alone or with loved ones, to help them relax after work.
  • To fit in. At parties and other gatherings, people may use alcohol as a way to reduce their social anxiety and feelings of self-consciousness, or simply because others are doing it.
  • To celebrate. Weddings, birthdays, milestones, job promotions, the Super Bowl: if it’s a happy, exciting or meaningful event it’s likely the alcohol will be flowing.
  • For better heart health. Some studies suggest that small daily doses of alcohol (like good quality red wine) can be beneficial for health, and specifically for the heart.

There are of course other ways to relax, fit in, celebrate or promote better heart health. But in our culture, many people start drinking without giving it a second thought.

Dangers of Social Drinking

Alcohol is a toxin, and it has damaging effects on the body when consumed to excess. Regular drinking of more than a glass or two per day can lead to increased risk for:

  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular events
  • Some forms of cancer
  • Liver problems

Even when alcohol consumption isn’t frequent enough to cause physical damage, there are still potential hazards:

  • Every drunk driver is prone to accidents, which can be fatal to themselves or the innocent.
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women can endanger their babies if they drink.
  • People may take particular types of medications that don’t mix well with alcohol.
  • Individuals who are vulnerable to alcohol—for example, those who have alcoholics in their family—may see their “social drinking” spiral out of control in as little as a few weeks.

Social Drinker or Problem Drinker?

There are non-drinkers, occasional drinkers, social drinkers, and alcoholics. But what about heavy social drinking, where people pass out every other weekend? They don’t feel the urge to drink during the week and lead an otherwise functional life but may spend Friday night through Sunday in an alcoholic stupor.

man passed out on sofa with pizza slice and beer can in his hand in messy room after party
That form of alcohol use is classified as problem drinking. It typically occurs in the period between the late teenage years and early twenties, among those who are in high school or college and heavily influenced by peers.
Young problem drinkers start out seeking to forge close social bonds. Oftentimes, these people can reduce cut their drinking later on, after they mature and begin to take on more life responsibilities, such as beginning a career, starting a family, surviving an adverse drinking experience, and so on.
So a strong incentive is enough to make a problem drinker stop. And because they can do so suddenly and without withdrawal symptoms, they could not be classified as addicted.

Social Drinker or Alcoholic?

Social drinkers do not necessarily descend into alcoholism. That is a long process involving many factors.
Social drinkers have fundamentally different motivations when drinking than alcoholics. They can stop anytime if they have a good enough reason to quit. Alcoholics, on the other hand, can have the best incentives and good intentions, but they are unable to cut back on their drinking without help from treatment professionals.
Developing alcoholics are often in denial about their relationship with alcohol. They need to rationalize their behavior, which becomes increasingly dangerous and embarrassing. They usually recognize and acknowledge their problem only after an accident or a meaningful, negative alcohol-related event—or after they hit absolute rock bottom.

Warning Signs of Alcoholism

When drinking is driven by compulsion or need rather than choice, it is time to take a close, honest look at the behavior. One may be in danger of slipping into addiction if it hasn’t happened already.

drunk man is holding a bottle of beer and reaching car keys

The telltale warning signs of alcoholism include:

  • Not realizing when it’s time to stop
  • Not being able to stop, even if when they do know it’s time
  • Multiple episodes of social binge drinking
  • Getting drunk before arriving at social gatherings
  • Keeping frequent company with other heavy drinkers
  • Drunk-driving, or other risky behaviors under the influence
  • Suffering from regular blackouts
  • Friends and family members have begun to avoid a person when this person is drinking
  • Engaging in random or risky sexual activities while drunk
  • Feeling shame and guilt about drunken behavior
  • Having friends or family express concern about one’s drinking
  • Using alcohol as a reward
  • Using alcohol to escape from stress and negative emotions
  • Finishing other people’s alcoholic drinks
  • Not being able to imagine one’s their life without alcohol
  • Denial and defensiveness in response to others questioning a person about their drinking
  • Daily drinking outside of meals

If just a few of these signs of alcoholism are present, a person should quit social drinking (and any other drinking) immediately and seek the counsel of an addiction treatment specialist.

Not Sure About Drinking Habits?

young woman thinking
If someone wondered if their drinking habits qualify them as social drinkers, problem drinkers, or alcoholic drinkers? Here are some questions to ask that can help one make the determination:

  • Does this person drink every day?
  • Does this person miss alcohol if they have to go without it for too long?
  • Does this person drink when they’re happy and when they’re sad?
  • Does this person feel guilty about their drinking?
  • Does this person make an effort to hide their drinking, or does this person lie about it?
  • Does this person’s friends or family criticize their drinking?
  • Has this person ever felt like they wanted to cut down on alcohol consumption?
  • Does this person regret spending too much money on alcohol?
  • Have their hangovers caused them to miss important events, or damaged cherished relationships?

If someone answered yes to any or all of these questions, it likely indicates that they’re more than just a social drinker.
Here’s an experiment a drinking individual should try:

If they party every week, stop drinking for, say, a month. Still attend the parties but stay sober, and observe how they feel.

  • Is it difficult to socialize without alcohol?
  • Does this person feel stressed or uncomfortable with themselves?
  • Were the interactions with people satisfying?
  • Was it more than a little difficult to resist the temptation to drink?

An experiment like this is a good way to gain insight into the drinking habits because it allows evaluating how much a person depends on alcohol while socializing. If their dependence is strong, the drinking may be something more than social—or at least heading that way, if the individual doesn’t take steps to reverse the trend.

How To Drink Responsibly?

Assuming an individual not an alcoholic, drinking responsibly means drinking with full conscious awareness of what one is doing and why they’re doing it.
If an individual chooses to continue drinking, here’s how to stay safe:

  • Educate themselves about alcoholism.
  • Never mix alcohol with medications or other substances.
  • Always eat something before drinking alcohol.
  • Be sure to drink water before drinking alcohol.
  • Don’t drink when in a bad mood, stressed, tired, or sad.
  • Learn to recognize when to stop – and do it.


Page Sources

  1. Giancarlo Colombo, Paola Maccioni, Carla Acciaro, Carla Lobina, Barbara Loi, Alessandro Zaru, Mauro A.M. Carai,Gian Luigi Gessa, Binge drinking in alcohol-preferring sP rats at the end of the nocturnal period,
  2. Fact Sheets - Binge Drinking,
  3. Current and Binge Drinking Among High School Students — United States, 1991–2015,

Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: June 3rd, 2020

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.


Leave a comment

  • Roman
    Can I use some sentences as guidelines for my research study? and if ever yes, whom could I address the words? like (jennings, 2018)?
  • Greek
    As a non-drinker aka someone who has never consumed alchool. 3-4 drinks in one setting can certainly be borderline drunkenness. I realize there different tolerances and different alcohol products. If you have to drink 7+ glasses of the poison in a week you are drinking alot. I drink approx 6-7 glasses of non-concentrated fruit juice in a week (1 per day) and I consider that lots.
    • skyboy
      Good for you Greek. Alcohol is not a component of good health in any universe.