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Does Alcohol Uncover the Real You?

At the very least, it loosens up things kept under wraps.

Key points

  • While under the influence you’ll probably act differently, but that doesn’t mean drinking reveals who you really are.
  • Alcohol lowers inhibitions, leading you to act more impulsively and care less about how others adversely regard your behavior.
  • The dangers of excessive imbibing include impaired cognitive, psychomotor, and executive functioning, as well as risky behavior.
  • Alcohol prompts you to manifest non-dominant thoughts and feelings you’d ordinarily detach yourself from.
Ron Lach/Pexels Free Photo
Source: Ron Lach/Pexels Free Photo

In 2006, when Mel Gibson was pulled over and arrested for drunk driving, he unleashed a vitriolic anti-Semitic tirade that went viral. The incident alarmingly raised the question as to whether he meant what he said—namely, about Jews being responsible for all world wars.

Blaming excessive alcohol intake for his patently racist remarks, Gibson protested: “I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.” But mental health professionals, weighing in on his unfortunate slip of the tongue, don’t perceive that explanation (or rather, rationalization) as sufficient to get him off the hook. Whether or not he was drunk, they argue, his vehemently derogatory speech nonetheless reflected a deep-seated prejudice. When sober, this inflammatory bias could be suppressed, but in an inebriated, altered state of consciousness, it could—non-volitionally—emerge.

That a drunk person can say or do something that doesn’t represent some subconscious part of them is a concept that experts have repeatedly questioned. And despite the circumstance that many laypeople think one’s behavior can be excused, if not exactly justified, by their lacking agency when inebriated, applied research on this topic has concluded that they still deserve to be held responsible.

What Does Alcohol Do to Your Brain?

It can hardly be denied that drinking, excessive or not, has biochemical and psychological effects on cerebral functioning. Gary Malone, an addiction psychiatrist at Baylor University, stated: “The higher the blood alcohol level, the more primitive and hostile the response that comes out.”

Another way of putting this (which I’ve yet to see in the literature) is that while the negative part of your ambivalence toward something may be kept in check by your normal consciousness, once your more prudent, self-censoring mechanisms are alcoholically impaired, these barricaded ideas escape from their private hiding places.

Moreover, neurotransmitters, particularly norepinephrine, are released when you're drinking. This serves to lower your inhibitions, leading you to act more impulsively and not really care that much about how others might adversely assess your behavior.

It can’t be overemphasized that this chemical explanation doesn’t imply that such negative thoughts and feelings didn’t already exist within you, but simply that you knew better than to give voice to them. Before becoming so neurologically unconstrained by drink, such sentiments would have been checked. Drunk, they become emboldened—now with an autonomous, and possibly outrageous, voice of their own.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Behavior?

To be fair, consuming alcohol, especially in social settings, is often beneficial. Edward Orehek and others (2020), referring to a multitude of academic studies, note that it has been shown to decrease anxiety and negative reactions to social stressors, while increasing extroversion and sociability, helping behaviors, generosity, and interpersonal bonding.

Nonetheless, these authors also highlight the unfavorable social consequences associated with drinking, notably when it’s overdone. While self-disclosure, for instance, can be socially advantageous, it’s still a double-edged sword. As the above authors describe it, much of the research on alcohol consumption is cautionary.

Again citing a large body of studies, they address how such consumption can impair cognitive, psychomotor, and executive functioning, as well as attentional capability, inhibitory control, prospective memory, and risk perception.

Moreover, the problem isn’t just the inebriated person’s inaccurately perceiving risk, it’s also their taking risks that are unwarranted, foolish, or precarious. And since one’s intellectual operations are undermined by drink, one is more likely to misperceive the intentions of others and react to them more aggressively.

Does Alcohol Reveal Your True Personality? And If Not, What Does It Do?

Unquestionably, then, alcohol can change how you think, feel, and behave. Or, perhaps more accurately, it can allow you to expand your communicative freedoms by overriding your typically self-protective defense mechanisms. And, not surprisingly, in the moment, that can make you feel happy, even euphoric. But although under the influence you may well act differently, that in itself doesn’t mean that drinking reveals—or can reveal—who you actually are.

It may, indeed, loosen up a part of you that you generally keep under wraps. But to suggest (as some philosophers and non-scientific writers have implied) that it betrays your true identity hasn’t at all been confirmed by research. And, by this point, such an important topic has been studied extensively.

It’s also crucial to note that alcoholic behavior, while it doesn’t disclose your basic nature, does prompt you to manifest non-dominant thoughts and feelings that ordinarily you’d detach yourself from. And that’s particularly true if certain wayward impulses you harbor are anti-social, illegal, or downright criminal.

Such concealed inclinations can leak out indirectly through the convoluted symbolism of dreams. But the threat of their also surfacing, in reality, is greatly magnified when you’ve been heavily imbibing.

As Allen Lobo observes:

There are few if any persons for whom you feel just one unadulterated emotion. Like pure love or pure hatred. No. It is usually a mix and some components outweigh others. When you’re sober then, you conceal the smaller ones because in essence those are not representative as a whole about how you feel about them.

The main problem here is that, when inebriated, these “less weighty components” come out, as Lobo puts it, “in very disproportionate fashion.” Additionally (and this is strikingly paradoxical), an individual who, say, is clearly introverted, timorous, and risk-averse can act completely out of character when drinking.

And as opposed to divulging their true nature, their actions—disinhibited almost beyond what one could imagine—rather than mirroring their actual personality, exhibit qualities of someone’s acting out a role in a fictional play.

Sure, when inebriated, they’re capable of out-extroverting most extroverts. But their “genuine” show of wild drunken emotional abandonment remains contrary to their day-to-day personality. In fact, once they sober up, there will be no carry-over from what in an altered state of consciousness they so boldly put on display.

More or less echoing Lobo, when Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, was asked “Why do some people get goofy and affectionate when drunk, while others become downright nasty?” He replied: “The way you react to external factors while drunk is exaggerated because you’ve lost a lot of your impulse control and awareness.”

For the sake of spontaneity—and authenticity—it would be most welcome if we could divulge to others everything inside us with impunity. But, because such expression is hardly safe or realistic, maybe the next best thing is to let out, and hopefully alleviate, inner tensions through confiding in a close, trusted, non-judgmental friend—or a sensitive, broad-minded therapist.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Orehek, E., Human, L. J., Sayette, M. A. Dimoff, J. D., Winograd, R. P., & Sher, K. J. (2020). Self-expression while drinking alcohol: Alcohol influences personality expression during first impressions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(1), 109-123.

Seay, N. (2022, Apr 19). Do drunk people tell the truth?

Steinley, D., Lane, S. P., & Sher, K. J. (2017. May 15). Personality may change when you drink, but less than you think.…

Winograd, R. P., Steinly, D. L., & Sher, K. J. (2014). Drunk personality: Reports from drinkers and knowledgeable informants. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 22(3), 187–197.

Lobo, A. (2019, Feb 10). When a person is very drunk, do they tell you the truth about how they feel about you?…