Reactivity to assessment has attracted recent attention in the brief alcohol intervention literature. This systematic review sought to examine the nature of change in alcohol consumption over time in control groups in brief intervention studies. Primary studies were identified from existing reviews published in English language, peer-reviewed journals between 1995 and 2005. Change in alcohol consumption and selected study-level characteristics for each primary study were extracted. Consumption change data were pooled in random effects models and meta-regression was used to explore predictors of change. Eleven review papers reported the results of 44 individual studies. Twenty-six of these studies provided data suitable for quantitative study. Extreme heterogeneity was identified and the extent of observed reduction in consumption over time was greater in studies undertaken in Anglophone countries, with single gender study participants, and without special targeting by age. Heterogeneity was reduced but was still substantial in a sub-set of 15 general population studies undertaken in English language countries. The actual content of the control group procedure itself was not predictive of reduction in drinking, nor were a range of other candidate variables including setting, the exclusion of dependent drinkers, the collection of a biological sample at follow-up, and duration of study. Further investigations may yield novel insights into the nature of behaviour change with potential to inform brief interventions design.