Why some people get angry when they're drunk

Not everyone responds to alcohol in the same way. Some of us get frisky. Others of us get sleepy. Some of us are happy drunks, and some of use are I'm-going-to-order-a-pizza-and-eat-the-entire-thing-in-my-underwear drunks. Then, of course, there are the angry, potentially dangerous drunks. How does ethanol make one person friendly and another belligerent? The answer, say researchers, could lie in a person's ability to envision the future consequences of his or her actions.

In other words: prudent people may be less likely to become angry or violent when they're drunk. That might sound obvious, but to make a claim like that, psychologists need a way of demonstrating that link in a study. To do that, psychologist Brad Bushman and his colleagues at Ohio State University asked close to 500 volunteers (half men, half women) to play a button-pressing game.

But there was a twist to the game. Test subjects were told that they were competing against another volunteer in a race to press the button first (they were actually playing against a computer that pre-determined the outcome of every round of button-pressing). If they "lost," they received an electric shock, purportedly delivered by their (imaginary) opponent. When a volunteer "won," however, they not only got to administer the jolt, they also got to choose its duration and intensity.

SciAm's Harvey Black describes the researchers' findings:

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.

Fortunately, Black says that just learning to reflect on their behavior can help impulsive people manage their emotions and keep anger in check, "developing a sense of control over their consequences." In other words: if you're not in the habit of thinking about the consequences of your actions, try thinking about the fact that you don't think about the consequences of your actions. Getting metacognitive could spare you and those around you an embarrasing — or worse, dangerous — episode of drunkenness. [Via SciAm]
Top image by Eric Deschamps via