Alcohol Can Sometimes Reduce Aggression

Alcohol consumption and aggression are sometimes related. What’s not so clear is just why drunks sometimes become belligerent. What is it about being intoxicated that sometimes makes fighting seem like a good idea? And do all intoxicated people get more aggressive? Or does it depend on the circumstances?

Psychologist Dr. Peter Giancola and his student Michelle Corman explored these questions experimentally. One theory about alcohol and aggression is that drinking impairs the part of the brain involved in allocating our limited mental resources—specifically attention and working memory. When they can only focus on a fraction of what’s going on around them , the theory holds, drunks narrow their social vision, concentrating myopically on provocative cues and ignoring things that might have a calming or inhibiting effect.

The researchers tested this idea on a group of young men. Some of the men were given three to four alcoholic drinks before the experiment, while others stayed sober. Then the scientists had them all compete against another person in a somewhat stressful game that required very quick responses. Every time they lost a round, they received a shock varying in intensity. Likewise, when they won a round they gave their opponent a shock. The idea was to see how alcohol affected the men’s belligerence, as measured by the kinds of shocks they chose to hand out.

But there was more to it.  The investigators also deliberately manipulated some of the volunteers’ cognitive powers. They required them—some drinkers, some not—to simultaneously perform a difficult memory task. The idea was to see if they could distract those who were “under the influence” from their “hostile” situation. If they could tax their limited powers of concentration, perhaps they wouldn’t process the fact that someone was zapping them with electricity.

And that’s exactly what happened. The intoxicated subjects who had nothing to distract them were predictably mean, exhibiting aggression towards their adversaries. However, the intoxicated subjects whose attention was focused elsewhere were actually less aggressive than the sober non-drinkers. This seems counterintuitive at first, but it’s really not: The sober men were cognitively intact, so they would naturally attend to both provocations and distractions in the room, resulting in some low level of aggression.

It appears that intoxication has the potential to both increase and decrease aggression, depending on where’s one’s attention is focused. The psychologists speculate that working memory is crucial not only to barroom behavior, but to all social behavior, because it provides the capacity for self-reflection and strategic planning. Activating working memory with salient, non-hostile, and health-promoting thoughts, in effect reduces the “cognitive space” available for inclinations towards violence.

Perhaps this knowledge could be used to end barroom brawls and domestic violence.

 

References:

  • Giancola, P. R. and Corman, M. D. Alcohol myopia and aggression. Psychological Science, 2007, in press (psychologicalscience.org/members/journal_issues/psinpress/giancola.PDF). Adapted from The end of barroom brawls: Study shows alcohol can reduce aggression. University of Kentucky press release, July 18, 2007.

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