Pure Pedantry

i-fbac2291664cfefeb01c36fb05297bdc-beer.jpgGiancola and Corman wanted to know why drunks are more aggressive.

The prevailing model to explain this effect is what is called the attentional allocation model wherein the alcohol inhibits an individual’s ability to focus on a broad range of stimuli — they become attentionally myopic. This means that when they focus on something that is provocative, they will become super-provoked. When they are focusing on something less provocative, they will become less provoked because they can more successfully ignore the provocative stimuli. It is in essence the horse-blinder theory of aggression.

To test this they got people drunk. If you don’t think that is fabulous in itself, then you should read this sentence that appears in the Methods section of the paper:

Subjects in the alcohol condition were administered a dose of 1g/kg of 100% alcohol mixed at a 1:5 ratio with Tropicana orange juice.

Science has now experimentally defined the screwdriver. (Although I would call 1:5 pretty weak sauce…) (Ed. Removed so that people won’t think the Editor is an alcoholic and because I realized that they were talking about pure grain alcohol, not something 80 proof.)

Then they compared the ability to arose anger in subjects that were drunk compared to those that were not. How you do this is you use something called the Taylor aggression paradigm wherein the participants can administer shocks to one another. The amount of aggression is measured by the size of the shock delivered.

To look at the relationship between being attentionally myopic and being drunk, the researchers also had some of the drunk participants and some of the controls memorize a sequence of illuminated grid squares. This serves to elevate their attentional load.

The data is below:


As you can see the aggression measured in the control subjects, it is about the same for both conditions. However, when the drunk subjects are not distracted, they are particularly aggressive. When they are distracted, their aggression falls below normal levels.

The experimenters view this as validation of the statement that drunk subjects are more aggressive because their working memory is contracted. The contraction prevents successful behavioral inhibition by crowding out nonhostile cues with hostile cues:

In conclusion, our results indicate that alcohol can both increase and decrease aggression, depending on where one’s attention is focused. As already alluded to, the mechanism underlying this myopic effect of alcohol seems to be disruption of working memory (see Finn, 2002). In general terms, working memory involves the ability to encode, maintain, and process and manipulate information (external and internal representations) in the short term. Successful behavioral inhibition and regulation require (a) that one is able to act upon inhibitory representations in working memory and (b) that these inhibitory representations are salient. We propose that working memory helps regulate social behavior by providing the capacity for information processing involved in, for example, hypothesis generation, self-reflection, previewing, outcome evaluation, resistance to distraction, problem solving, abstract reasoning, and strategic planning (i.e., executive functioning). We argue that activating and loading, yet not overloading, working memory with nonprovocative, inhibitory cues can attenuate aggression by allowing behavioral output to be influenced by such cues. In turn, this creates less “cognitive space” to house and process hostile cues. (Emphasis mine.)

I do have a couple little problems with this paper.

1) They are equating attentional load with working memory, but that is a rant for another time. The amount of things you can attend to and your working memory are not necessarily equivalent.

2) This study ignores the possibility that the alcohol limits the complexity of the things your working memory can contain. In this sense the size of the working memory may not be the issue. You just can’t think of things more complicated than aggression.

3) You could argue that the increased aggression effect is the result of a broad change in the interpretation of reward — i.e. aggression becomes more strategically desirable, and that this is present in the distracted drunk case but you can’t see it because they are not paying attention to the task.

For those reasons, I would make the claim that the attentional allocation model is not necessarily true.

However, there is one exceedingly useful take home from this work. If your friends get belligerent when they are drunk, distraction works wonders.

Incidentally, this study totally reminds me of that scene in Ghostbusters…

“I’ll you what the effect is: it’s pissing me off!”

Hat-tip: Eurekalert


  1. #1 Kapitano
    July 18, 2007

    I think the paper is asking fundamentally the wrong question. It’s asking “Why are drunk people more easily provoked to anger?”, which avoids alternatives like:

    * “What is it about being drunk in company that makes people more easily provoked”

    * “Why don’t solitary home drinkers smash up their furniture?”

    * “Why do close friends who get drunk together argue more but fight less?”

    * “Why do some people get mellow when drunk?”

    * “Why do some people lose sexual inhibitions but not aggressive ones?”

    * “Why is drunken violence correlated to economic class?”

    etc, etc.

    People’s behavior while intoxicated seems to be determined far more by what happens in the rest of their lives than by any single neurological effect.

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    July 18, 2007

    “Science has now experimentally defined the screwdriver. (Although I would call 1:5 pretty weak sauce…)”

    Hmmm… I don’t know. I’d usually make a screwdriver with 50% vodka, 50% orange juice. For 80 proof (40% alcohol) vodka, this would give a final alcohol concentration of 20%, which is the same as in the study.

    If you’re drinking screwdrivers with more than 20% alcohol, I’d say you’re pretty hardcore!

  3. #3 apy
    July 18, 2007

    I’m not sure if it is actually valid, but a number of people report A) a different kind of drunk B) react differently to the same stimuli depending on the kind of alcohol they have ingested. For instance, some people say they get much more aggressive on hard alcohol as opposed to beer. Are there any studies on why this is? I would assume slightly different metabolites affect the brain differently?

  4. #4 Nick Anthis
    July 18, 2007

    This is the best explanation I can find:


  5. #5 Jake Young
    July 18, 2007

    Nick you are completely right.

    It just occurred to me that they weren’t talking 1:5 of something like vodka; they were talking 1:5 of pure grain alcohol.

    That is indeed sufficient.

  6. #6 bugaboo
    July 18, 2007

    Anyone done such studies not involving humans? I remember a fig tree in our yard in California when I was a kid. There was far too much fruit for us to consume and a great deal of it fell to the ground and began fermentation. Why the animals were not going after it as it ripened or subsequently fell, I do not know. After it had begun fermentation, however, the birds and squirrels were everywhere and all became very agitated to the point of fighting each other any time any one of them got too close to the other, to say nothing of when one would try to take a piece away from another. Violence, aggression, complete change from normal characteristics of the species involved.

    I just fall asleep.

  7. #7 Toby
    July 19, 2007

    What to do with a belligerent drunk …?

    … tie him in the longboat ’til he’s sober?

  8. #8 RRR
    December 31, 2011

    I become belligerent when I am drunk. I think it’s because I am an angry person to begin with and when I am drunk I am not inhibited and can speak freely.

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