Alcohol leads to myopia (short-sightedness). Alcohol consumption—getting drunk—narrows your focus of attention and thoughts to the most obvious information or cues in your immediate environment. As a consequence, behavior is overly influenced by the noticeable cues to the exclusion of more distant stimuli or consequences (Steele and Josephs, 1990). For example, a person already having negative thoughts is likely to feel sad after becoming intoxicated.
The following seven points illustrate the effect heavy drinking can have on your capacity to focus and make decisions.
Alcohol myopia limits the amount of information that intoxicated individuals can process. As a result, remaining attentional resources are allocated to only the most immediate environment. This diminished availability of resources has particularly strong effects in situations of conflict—when faced with two competing motivations, one is immediately obvious, and the other seems distant. This explains the attention-related mistakes that people make while intoxicated, such as impaired driving (MacDonald, Zanna, and Fong, 1995).
2. Impulsive behavior.
No is an extraordinarily complicated word when people are drunk. Alcohol, at least in high doses, may impair people’s capacity to inhibit impulsive behavior (Hofmann et al. 2008). Intoxicated individuals tend to attend to the stimuli that provide them with immediate pleasure (e.g., unsafe sex) at the expense of future risk (e.g., potentially contracting an STD or causing a pregnancy).
Alcohol by itself does not cause aggression. It only increases the level of aggression in response to provocation (Giancola, et al., 2010). In hostile situations, alcohol encourages aggressive behavior by narrowing our attention on provocative cues, rather than on non-provocative or self-restraint cues.
Heavy drinking triggers overeating, because alcohol impairs people’s ability to regulate or control their food intake. For this reason, chronic dieters who continuously monitor their calorie intake find themselves particularly at risk to experience alcohol’s negative consequences on their dietary goals. Reducing alcohol intake is a common recommendation for participants in weight-loss programs (Hofmann et al. 2008).
Intoxicated people tend to lose the ability to successfully monitor their behavior (Hull and Bond, 1986). As you've probably noticed, the beginning of a cocktail party is typically subdued, and guests are mostly self-conscious. But an hour or so later the volume usually increases. As the drinkers’ awareness declines, the attitude tends to change to “Who really cares?”
6. Anxiety relief.
Alcohol is known to relieve stress and anxiety (Horwitz, 2013). This may be maintained by the popular belief that alcohol “takes the edge off.” Alcohol diverts attention away from anxiety-inducing stimuli. The pharmacological effects of ethanol (similar to benzodiazepines and opiates) can temporarily reduce anxiety. However, alcohol does not necessarily reduce anxiety and fear in the long term, and may in fact worsen it, which can motivate further drinking. Thus, anxiety and alcohol use are risk factors for each other.
7. Empty promises.
The strength of people’s commitment to something depends on its value to them and the chance that the value will occur. Typically a goal’s desirability is more obvious to people than its feasibility. Alcohol ingestion breeds empty goal commitment by making people focus on the desirability rather than the feasibility of important goals. Once sober, they fail to follow through on their promises (Sevincer and Oettingen, 2009).
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Hofmann, W., Förster, G., Stroebe, W., & Wiers, R. W. (2011). The great disinhibitor: alcohol, food cues, and eating behavior. In Handbook of Behavior, Food and Nutrition (pp. 2977-2991). Springer New York.
Giancola, P. R., Josephs, R. A., Parrott, D. J., & Duke, A. A. (2010). Alcohol myopia revisited: Clarifying aggression and other acts of disinhibition through a distorted lens. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 265–278.
Horwitz, Allan (2013). Anxiety: A Short History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Hull, J.G., & Bond, C.F. (1986). Social and behavioral consequences of alcohol consumption and expectancy: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 99, 347–360.
MacDonald, T., Zanna, M., & Fong, G. (1995). Decision making in altered states: Effects of alcohol on attitudes toward drinking and driving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 973–985.
Sevincer, A. T., & Oettingen, G. (2009). Alcohol breeds empty goal commitment. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 118, 623-633.
Steele, C. M., and Josephs, R. A. (1990). Alcohol myopia: its prized and dangerous effects. American Psychology, 45, 921–933.