The Baader-Meinhof Effect, known also by its less tongue-tying name the frequency effect, is that feeling when you hear of something for the first time, then it feels like it’s popping up everywhere. Have you ever asked a child their favourite animal, and they tell you something obscure – like the ocelot, or meerkat – and then you’re seeing ocelots and meerkats on every poster, and in every TV show? That’s Baader-Meinhof in action.
For us, the most recent instance of this has been the phrase “sober curious”. It’s popped up on CNN, throughout forums, in the Washington Post, and even in the ultra-trendy world of Instagram influencers.
“Sober curious”, like the wellness movement, is often characterised as a health craze or fad. However, in essence, it’s the attitude of people who stop drinking alcohol not because they have to, but because they want to feel healthier, or spend less money, or any other number of reasons. “Sober curious” is a label that people get to identify with without saying “I have a problem with alcohol”.
It’s no secret that Australia has issues with binge drinking. Roughly half of all attendees at SMART Recovery Australia’s meetings come to us for issues related to alcohol. If young people – statistically, the most likely to binge – see sobriety as something trendy, that isn’t a bad thing.
The question, of course, is why there needs to be a label for those who do not want to partake in an activity. We don’t have a name for those who don’t go rock climbing, or who don’t watch TV. You aren’t couch-curious for preferring an evening in to going out, sober or not.
SMART Recovery Australia avoids the use of labels such as “alcoholic” or “addict” in our meetings because we believe they are reductive and contribute to stigma. You can learn more about that by consulting our language guide. Combating stigma, unfortunately, can be a double-edged sword. Stigma and fear thereof is one of the greatest barriers to help-seeking behaviour faced by those who need it most. The key question around “trends” and alternative phrasing is whether or not it exacerbates stigma, or reduces it.
On one hand, the term “sobriety” can be troublesome. Many people who have issues with alcohol choose to moderate their intake, and this harm minimisation philosophy is one that SMART Recovery Australia believes in wholeheartedly. Using words like “sober” or, worse, “clean” implies black-and-white absolutism to the issue.
However, the “sober curious” movement encourages us to rethink our preconceived notions around alcohol. Anything that encourages consciousness and awareness around drinking or any potentially problematic behaviour can only be beneficial. After all, you don’t need to have a problem with alcohol to benefit from a change in your relationship with it.
But does the idea that people need to specify that they don’t have a problem – “I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just sober curious” – contribute to stigma? Is it a statement that otherises those who already need help? It shouldn’t matter whether you have an issue with alcohol or not. If you need help, you ought to get it. And if you want to cut down on drinking, that’s fine too – label or not.