Can Social Norms Explain Long-Term Trends in Alcohol Use? Insights from Inverse Generative Social Science

Tuong Manh Vu, Charlotte Buckley, João A. Duro, Alan Brennan, Joshua M. Epstein, Robin C. Purshouse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Social psychological theory posits entities and mechanisms that attempt to explain observable differences in behavior. For example, dual process theory suggests that an agent’s behavior is influenced by intentional (arising from reasoning involving attitudes and perceived norms) and unintentional (i.e., habitual) processes. In order to pass the generative sufficiency test as an explanation of alcohol use, we argue that the theory should be able to explain notable patterns in alcohol use that exist in the population, e.g., the distinct differences in drinking prevalence and average quantities consumed by males and females. In this study, we further develop and apply inverse generative social science (iGSS) methods to an existing agent-based model of dual process theory of alcohol use. Using iGSS, implemented within a multi-objective grammar-based genetic program, we search through the space of model structures to identify whether a single parsimonious model can best explain both male and female drinking, or whether separate and more complex models are needed. Focusing on alcohol use trends in New York State, we identify an interpretable model structure that achieves high goodness-of-fit for both male and female drinking patterns simultaneously, and which also validates success-fully against reserved trend data. This structure offers a novel interpretation of the role of norms in formulating drinking intentions, but the structure’s theoretical validity is questioned by its suggestion that individuals with low autonomy would act against perceived descriptive norms. Improved evidence on the distribution of autonomy in the population is needed to understand whether this finding is substantive or is a modeling artefact.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2023


  • Agent-Based Modeling
  • Inverse Generative Social Science
  • Psychosocial Mechanisms of Alcohol Use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science (miscellaneous)
  • General Social Sciences


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