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Why alcohol makes us mean. Angry drunks explained.

Photo: Jan TikThere's something in alcohol that makes all of us act just a little more belligerently and aggressively than we otherwise would, and for some people alcohol can even provoke physical violence.

But why, and why does a drug we take to feel good eventually so often end up creating feelings of anger and even behaviors of aggression?

To answer these questions University of Kentucky psychologist Peter Giancola took a look at drinking in a modeled experiment of aggression. Working from a theory that explains alcohol influenced violence occurring because when drunk, the parts of our brain that operate our working memory are significantly impaired; and we as a result are less able to focus on multiple environmental stimuli simultaneously.

What happens, so the theory postulates, is that we tend to focus only on provocative stimuli, while being unable to concurrently process other environmental stimuli that might calm or mitigate these perceived provocations.

A man may be at a bar and see someone "hitting on his girlfriend" and when drunk enough, may not recognize the other environmental factors that would clearly indicate that the man was actually, for example, an old friend, and he acts without an accurate perception of the reality in an aggressive manner.

Drinking and Electro ShocksDrinking and Electro Shocks

To clinically test this alcohol induced theory of aggression, Giancola performed experiments that combined electroshocks and Vodka! He gave some trial participants a number of alcoholic drinks, and others none, and he had the study volunteers face off against one another in a frustrating game task, where the loser received an electro shock of varying intensity from the winner.

As expected, the "drunk" participants consistently gave more intense electro shocks to their opponents than those who had not been drinking. To change the variables slightly, Giancola had the drunken participants also think about a complex mental task while playing the game and delivering the shocks, and found that while concentrating on something other than the game exclusively, the shocks delivered by the drunken participants were significantly less intense.

Giancola explains that by having the drunk game players concentrating on something other than the game and their opponents perceived aggression and provocation, they were more distracted and did not perceive as high a need for an aggressive response; but when focusing solely on the game, the drunken participants focused solely on the aggression of their opponent, and responded with high levels of electro shocks.

Giancola further explains that the drunks that had to concentrate on more than just the game were more similar to a sober person, who has the capacity to absorb multiple environmental variables simultaneously, and does not focus only on perceived aggression and provocation. It's a very interesting theory, and it seems that research backs it up. Our working memory allows us to absorb and process environmental cues effectively, and by being able to simultaneously process a number of environmental variables, the perceived requirement for an aggressive response to a situation is reduced.

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