Why Alcohol Makes Some People Belligerent

Some people are friendly drunks, whereas others are hostile, potentially endangering themselves and others. The difference may lie in their ability to foresee the consequences of their actions, according to a recent study in the online Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Ohio State University, and his colleagues asked nearly 500 volunteers to play a simple game. The subjects, an even mix of women and men, believed they were competing against an opponent to press a button as quickly as possible. In reality, they were simply using a computer program that randomly decided if they had won or lost. When they lost, they received a shock. When the “opponent” lost, the participant gave the shock and chose how long and intense it should be.

Before playing, the participants completed a survey designed to measure their general concern for the future consequences of their actions. Half the partici­pants then received enough alcohol mixed with orange juice to make them legally drunk, and the other half received a drink with a very tiny amount of alcohol in it. Subjects who expressed little interest in consequences were more likely to administer longer, more intense shocks. In the sober group, they were slightly more aggressive than people who cared about consequences. When drunk, however, their belligerence was off the charts. “They are by far the most aggressive people in the study,” Bushman says.

The good news is this trait is malleable. Michael McKloskey, a psychologist at Temple University who treats aggression, explains that people who act on impulse often feel that a frustrating or uncomfortable situation is happening “just to make their life miserable.” If they can learn to see the situation more realistically, he explains, “they’re able to stay calmer, and they can keep their anger in check.” When impulsive people master this technique, he says, they develop a sense of control over their consequences.

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