Have you ever wondered why drinkers do stupid, self-destructive things when drunk?
If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you’ve been there, opening your eyes the morning after a night of drinking and cringing when we look back.
Drinkers do all sorts of crazy things. Drink driving, unsafe sex with strangers, getting into fights, trouble with the police, you name it. But why? What is it about alcohol that clouds our judgment and so completely destroys our decision-making?
Cognitive science has found the answer to this, and you will learn it today. If alcohol has played a significant negative role in your life or the life of somebody you love, I promise you this will be illuminating information.
So, let’s have a look at some numbers from 2006.
That was the year the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a very influential report titled “Economic Costs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption in the US, 2006”. It’s one of the best estimates we have to this day of how much alcohol abuse costs the US economy on an annual basis. The report’s authors break down the total costs into three major categories: health care, lost productivity, and other effects.
Health care and lost productivity are pretty self-explanatory. But I wanna look at the third category of “other effects.” It reads like a compendium of alcohol-induced stupidity:
- Criminal justice costs: $20 billion annually. When you look into the stats between alcohol and criminality, you see that alcohol is responsible for double the cost of crimes of all other drugs combined. So you have to add up the criminal costs of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and so on, multiply it by two, and then you will match the cost of drinking. But that’s not even a fair comparison in the first place because these other drugs are illegal to begin with. Just possessing them will incur a criminal cost, whereas alcohol is entirely Basically, all the criminal costs of alcohol are from people acting violent or stupid.
- Motor vehicle crashes: $13 billion. According to the CDC, alcohol is involved in one of three fatal car accidents.
- Fire losses: $2 billion. That’s primarily people accidentally setting their houses on fire while drunk.
- Crime victim property damage: $430 million, and
- Fetal alcohol syndrome: $368 million.
In a nutshell, this is more or less the cost to the economy of drunk people doing stupid things they would never do in a sober state, like driving in an incapacitated state, getting in trouble with the law, starting fires, etc.
But there are other social costs to this behavior that the report does not cover. For example, we find from other reports that almost a quarter of women who turn up at a pregnancy termination facility in the United States had been binge drinking the month they conceived.
Mind you, this is the number who admit to binge drinking – the actual figure may be much higher. And, it doesn’t stop there.
The WHO estimates that 55% of domestic abuse cases are perpetrated by drunk partners.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
Alcohol can turn us into completely different people. One that we don’t recognize and can be deeply ashamed of when sober up.
The question is how? What is the mechanism by which this happens? What switches flick on in our brain when we drink that push us to do all these crazy things?
Until a few decades ago, psychologists and other cognitive scientists explained this with the so-called Disinhibition Model.
According to this theory, alcohol interferes with our ability to keep aggressive or impulsive behavior under wraps. So we basically lose our ability to control our impulses and act stupidly or violently.
But this theory was simplistic, and on its own, it couldn’t explain a lot of what psychologists and psychologists were observing.
Then in 1990, two psychologists from the University of Michigan published a landmark study titled “Alcohol Myopia: Its Prized and Dangerous Effects.” They proposed that instead of inhibition, alcohol’s primary effect is on attention.
Alcohol distorts attention, not the inhibition of impulses. And this distortion of attention is at the foundation of all the stupid, violent, and self-destructive behaviors.
Hence the term “alcohol myopia.” Just like when you’re myopic or short-sighted, you can’t see past your immediate environments, so it is with drinking.
According to the theory, and backed up by a large body of experimental evidence in the intervening decades, alcohol restricts the intoxicated person’s attention to what is:
- Most salient
- Most immediate
- Most easy to process, and
- Most attention-grabbing
In a nutshell, drunk people are prisoners of the present moment. And because human attention is limited, the fact that they focus on these salient, attention-grabbing cues means something has to give.
And the cues that are lost in the background, those that we DON’T process when drunk are the following:
- Less salient
- Less immediate
- Non-provocative, AND
You’ll understand more about what I mean by non-provocative and inhibitory as we look at how the theory can explain specific behaviors. Let’s get into it.
So when you’ve had a few too many drinks, and you’re considering how to get home, you’re in the unfortunate position of having to do so under the effects of alcohol myopia.
What cues does alcohol myopia heighten? Well, for starters, how tired you are, how bad you feel, and how quickly you want to go home. What quicker way to do this than getting in your car right there in front of you?
The other option is getting a taxi, but let’s be honest, what are the first things that come to mind when considering a taxi? How much it will cost, and how long you will have to wait. The taxi starts to look very unattractive when your attention is overwhelmingly focused on these cues.
But if you review the situation the following day when sober, you will be shocked at how little consideration you gave to less immediate and less-salient cues.
Like the possibility of getting stopped by the police, getting in an accident, taking someone’s life, losing your freedom, all of that which would normally inhibit you was just squeezed out of the picture.
The mechanism by which this happens is that alcohol heightens a drinker’s sexual desire for the person who is right there in front of them. They can only focus on the person and their attraction to that individual.
There’s also the well-known “beer goggle” effect, where members of the opposite sex are seen as more physically attractive when drunk. In a sober state, we would judge their attractiveness more objectively and perhaps conclude that, hey, I don’t really like that person so much.
Drinkers think of the immediate gratification and attraction of the person – and end up engaging in risky behavior. They don’t consider unwanted pregnancy, a sexually transmitted disease, or losing a partner when they discover the infidelity.
It’s all short-term thinking.
When drinkers face a threatening or simply adversarial person in a drunken situation, almost all of their attention is focused on the person.
And not just the person in general, but specifically on what is threatening, adversarial, or unpleasant about them. This magnifies the threat in their head, and they’re compelled to respond aggressively. Either verbally or physically.
In a sober state, the person in front of them would only be part of the picture. You would also consider less-salient, inhibitory cues. Like what else is happening around you, the potential costs of your aggression, and so on.
Experimental psychologists have actually found that when you put drunk people in adversarial situations but distract their attention AWAY from the other person and onto another task, like an arithmetic problem, their aggression plummets. Take away the distraction, and their aggression goes through the roof again.
You don’t see these dramatic differences in sober people – distraction or no distraction, their aggression levels don’t change as much.
I should clarify that not all people become more aggressive when drunk. In many people, drinking has a completely different effect. They simply become more talkative, outgoing, and flirty.
So clearly, there are individual differences in susceptibility to aggression, and some of them will almost certainly have a genetic component. Identifying these predictors of susceptibility to violence is one of cognitive scientists’ most important challenges.
In the US, about 40 thousand people take their own lives every year, and suicide constitutes the 10th leading cause of death. A 2014 study used national data and found that alcohol was involved in the death of 36% of men who took their lives and 28% of women.
The researchers estimated that drinking increases the risk of suicide by 1.8 times in men and 2.4 times in women.
Suicide researchers have noticed that one of alcohol’s effects on the mind is what they have termed “cognitive constriction.” The intoxicated person faces a problem that takes over in their head and prevents them from generating alternative, realistic coping strategies.
The fact that they can’t focus on these realistic alternatives constricts them to one of two possible solutions: death or a miraculous solution to their problems. And tragically, they will sometimes go for the former.
So, it’s not that alcohol removes our inhibitions – it’s that it creates a short-sightedness – meaning you can’t see past your immediate environment.
Stay safe – and have a great day!