You, Illuminated

Commonsense explanations of neuroscience

A Farewell to Bar Fights

Why does alcohol cause some people to turn mean?

Following Henny Youngman's advice, if you're going to get drunk and do something tonight you'll regret tomorrow morning, sleep late. Most of us know that drinking can lead us to say and do things we wouldn't otherwise, and that can cause embarrassment. Or worse. When Mel Gibson was pulled over for a DUI in 2006, he ended up in jail, and during the arrest, he became so belligerent that he went into an anti-semitic tirade. Needless to say, it wasn't a well-timed career move. The DUI was reduced to a misdemeanor, but the reputation damage caused by Gibson's words couldn't be pardoned by a judge.

Mel Gibson arrest
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If Gibson were sober, it seems unlikely that he would have expressed such strident, antagonistic views, especially not while wearing handcuffs. If the primary reason most people drink is to have a good time, why does alcohol dispose some people to aggressive or hostile behavior?

Considering the fact that alcohol is one of the oldest and most widely consumed beverages, we remain surprisingly inept at answering that question. Although we've been getting buzzed for over 5,000 years, it's only been in the past 50 that we've made much progress understanding alcohol and some of its more specific effects on behavior.

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Alarmingly, over half of all murders occur under the influence of alcohol. Some high estimates go as far as to suggest eighty-percent of murderers were intoxicated at the time of attack. Equally troubling, as much as two-thirds of domestic violence occurs when the abusive partner is drunk.

Despite these sobering statistics, the majority of drinkers do not become mean; estimates suggest that only around 25-percent of tipplers are mean drunks.

It's somewhat perplexing that two people can consume the same substance and have completely different behavioral outcomes. One person might have a cocktail to facilitate social interactions and become the life of the party, while another's belligerence might instead have anti-social effects and spoil the fun.

Aggression and alcohol

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Although most people drink peacefully and merrily, the 25-percent who become aggressive under the influence do so consistently. The 2006 DUI wasn't the first time that sipping firewater landed Gibson in hot water. In a 1991 interview he made offensive remarks about gays that drew criticism; he later admitted he had been drinking vodka at the time.

Who is likely to become an aggressive drunk?

There is no label on a person that easily identifies them as a mean drunk, but some characteristics can offer clues. Alcohol does not implant a behavior which isn't already present, so it's doubtful that a sober pacifist would suddenly take up arms after a few libations. Grandpa's cough medicine likely only facilitates the punch for people who already have aggressive tendencies. Research has found that individuals with a criminal history are more likely to express aggression when drinking. Also, problem drinking, such as alcoholism or binge-drinking, is associated with an increased likelihood for a brawl. Several studies of character traits have found that people who are not only angrier in general, but more expressive of their anger are more likely to resort to fighting when tipsy.

As much as we've searched for traits to help spot mean drunks before they strike, there doesn't seem to be any one characteristic which indubitably identifies one. Ultimately, because those who become aggressive while drinking tend to do so consistently, the best way to identify a future mean drunk is to know who has been one in the past.

Some leading theories.

We've learned a great deal about alcohol's affects on aggression by studying rats; they also become mean when drunk. In sober circumstances, rats often resolve disputes peacefully using body language as a signal of submission so that an encounter does not become physical. When drunk, however, the aggressor will often ignore submissive cues and proceed to bite the prone rat. Liquored up humans may similarly be blind to social cues that signal an aggressor to calm down, such as conciliatory words or an attempt to diffuse the situation.

Bar Fight

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Despite the relationship between drinking and hostility, giving someone alcohol alone, in the absence of environmental and social cues, does not invoke aggression. As in almost any situation, the most reliable way to get someone to throw blows is to pick a fight with them. An analysis of multiple studies of alcohol-heightened aggression concluded that alcohol may lead to hostility by making provocations more salient. A soused scrapper may be more likely to perceive innocent actions as threatening or exaggerate the severity of a mild insult, leading to a heightened aggressive response. Don't accidentally brush past a mean drunk in a bar or give them a funny look; they might be looking for an excuse to fight.

Similarly, alcohol may impair our inhibitory control. In several experiments where subjects were instructed to press a button when a green cue appeared on the screen and withhold their response when a red cue appeared on the screen, alcohol worsened performance; buzzed subjects had trouble suppressing responses when the red cue was on the screen. Whereas when clear-headed it might be easy to turn the other cheek if aggravated, alcohol may disrupt our ability to suppress emotional responses.

For such a regularly consumed drug, we know surprisingly little about alcohol, but we're making progress. Commonly used as a social lubricant, it's peculiar that alcohol can impel certain susceptible individuals towards aggression. That should send a cautionary note. After all, for the most part Mel Gibson seems to be a pleasant, fun-loving person-the last guy you'd expect to get mean. If someone is disposed to becoming a mean drunk, a few drinks may be all it takes to transition from being What Women Want into Mad Max. Or worse yet, Lethal Weapon.

In the next few posts, I'll explore some possible explanations for how alcohol affects our brains, leading to aggressive behavior, and how we might use that knowledge to prevent alcohol-related violence.   

 

Further reading:

Bushman BJ (1997) Effects of alcohol on human aggression.  Validity of proposed mechanisms.  Recent Dev Alcohol; 13: 227-243

Greenfeld LA, Henneberg MA (2001) Victim and offender self-reports of alcohol involvement in crime. Alcohol Res Health;25: 20-31

Giancola PR, Saucier DA, Gussler-Burkhardt NL (2003) The effects of affective, behavioral, and cognitive components of trait anger on the alcohol-aggression relation. Alcohol Clin Exp Res Dec;27: 1944-1954

 

Thanks to Audrey Nath for comments and suggestions

Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

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