Perhaps the only thing stopping me from becoming an alcoholic is the fact that I find the taste of alcohol unconscionably offensive. Beer is sewer water. Rum? Cough syrup. I’m likely betraying my unpolished, suburban upbringing here, but even the crème de la crème of liqueurs—say, a gilded bottle of vintage cognac festooned with Swarovski crystals—might as well be a dressed-up container of Liquid Drano to me. And if you’re ever sitting across from me at a fancy restaurant, note my uncontrollable wincing after I lift my glass in surrender to the moment and the first piquant coat of expensive wine rudely invades my taste buds.
But then, somewhere between that second and fourth glass, the noxiousness of ethanol diffuses into a flavor as harmless as spring water, and the psychological effect is—what can I say—pure magic.
Given the sobering costs of drinking on society (alcohol accounts for 70 percent of fatal traffic accidents, and nearly the same annual percentage of murders, spousal battery and child abuse) alcoholism has justifiably been the focus of considerable attention by clinical psychologists over the years. It’s certainly not my intent to downplay these serious issues associated with drinking. Believe me, here in Northern Ireland I’d wager there are more pubs than there are fast food restaurants in all of Texas, and one needn’t look far in Belfast to see how ruinous alcohol can be on the lives of those affected.
Yet one mustn’t always be a teetotaling bore, either. There is such a thing as responsible drinking; and over the past few decades, fun-loving psychologists have occasionally explored some of the quirky effects of moderate drinking on social behavior and cognition. Dostoyevsky used to refer to vodka as the “Russian God,” which, if you think about it, is still a decent metaphor for the type of spiritual escapism available in an 80 proof bottle of today’s Absolut. In fact, back in 1965, Harvard University psychologists Rudolf Kalin and David McClelland, along with Michael Kahn from Yale University, found precisely this type of “metaphysical” effect of drinking on male college students.
In their long-forgotten article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, these forward-thinking scholars began their piece by hinting at a moralistic conspiracy, asking readers the following question: “Is it possible that the American puritan tradition has led even scientists to overlook some of the ‘positive’ effects of social drinking in stressing that the only value it has is to deaden the individual to real life, to anesthetize him a little so that he suffers less from anxiety?” And so these maverick scientists, eschewing the impolitic nature of their research question, decided to conduct a series of experiments to explore whether moderate drinking inspires creative thought.
The gist of Kalin and his colleagues’ study went something like this. Two comparison groups of male college students were observed in a “natural” setting—for example, a smallish fraternity party or a living room discussion. Unbeknownst to the participants, the groups were randomly assigned to either a “wet” condition (where alcohol was served) or a “dry” condition (where only soft drinks were served). The dry condition therefore was the control condition, but the authors volunteer this inadvertently humorous aside:
Unfortunately, most subjects had expected alcohol to be served at both parties—which was normal on such occasions—so that the subjects in the dry condition were quite angry when they discovered no liquor was available. To keep their cooperation, the experimenter had to promise them a keg of beer after the party was over, but obviously their mood was not ideal for a control or “neutral” condition.
For the wet conditions, an experimenter present in the room surreptitiously recorded the approximate amount of alcohol consumed by each person.
After about 25 minutes of spontaneous, non-scripted socializing, participants from both conditions were individually administered a version of the “Thematic Apperception Test” (or, TAT). Although it’s not used as frequently these days, the TAT was at the time a very common psychological projection test where ambiguous images (say, a man looking into a tent) are presented to the participant, and he or she is asked to narrate the scene. Thus, it’s meant to tap into the person’s “unconscious” or “repressed” thoughts. In the present study, Kalin and his colleagues chose images that represented five different areas of thought that alcohol might be expected to effect—namely sex (portrayed by, for example, an image titled “Young couple walking on a sidewalk”), aggression (e.g., “Boxer in gym, looking pensive”), elation (e.g., “Ski jumper in midair”), conflict (e.g., “Negro in a race riot, taunted by a number of white fellows”—embarrassing, yes, but remember it was 1965) and “mysteries of life” (e.g., “Boatman rowing on a lake on moonlit night”). The participants were asked to write a story about each of the images, the general hypothesis being that those in the wet condition would exhibit more explicit and extreme thoughts in response to these particular TAT pictures.
After coding these written responses, the authors found that after about two to three drinks containing 1.5-ounce shots of 86-proof alcohol, participants displayed an increase in “fantasy” thinking, particularly in relation to the “mysteries of life” image theme. In fact, they tended to see a mystery of life dimension even in those images that weren’t meant to induce such thoughts. “Apparently,” the researchers write, “[alcohol] acts to allow or encourage [people] to think in contrasting terms about large or existential life issues. One can think of these…. as indicating a yearning for reflecting on some of life’s basic issues (success-failure, life-death, pleasure-unpleasure, etc.) which is encouraged or released by alcohol in small quantities under social conditions.” For example, a wet participant wrote in response to the “ski jumper in midair” image: “Paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
Now, as a psychologist who studies people’s belief in God, I’ve had more drunken conversations about the meaning of life with ethanol-soaked brains than I care to count. So intuitively this makes sense—I’ve found that, alongside the worm in a bottle of tequila, many people also find God at the bottom of their alcoholic beverages. Be advised, though. After 5-6 drinks, these deep thoughts sound to the sober onlooker about as profound as a potato thudding against a concrete floor. In any event, Kalin and his coauthors suggest that their TAT findings shed some light on why so many people drink small amounts of alcohol socially. “What has not been previously stressed,” they write, “is the early ‘positive’ stage (e.g., 2-3 drinks) in which subjects think more often… about the meaning of life.”
Fast-forward a few decades in psychological science and you’ll come across a few other studies where participants in experiments get boozed up in the laboratory. In an experiment published in a 1975 issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, for example, Raymond Higgins from the University of Kansas and G. Alan Marlatt from the University of Washington asked a group of male introductory psychology students to participate in a wine-tasting task. The students were deceptively told that the study was an investigation “of the effects of psychological mood states on the perception of taste.” Each subject thus sat down to his own private sampling table where the experimenter had neatly laid out for him three-fifths of table wine, three empty glasses, a container of water and another glass for rinsing the palate between samples, and some taste-testing forms listing 63 adjectives (e.g., “sweet,” “bitter,” “strong”). Just before the imbibing, the researcher reminded the participant, “Remember, you can take as many tastes of the drinks as you need to answer the questions. Just pour them into the glasses as you see fit.”
Of course, Higgins and Marlatt weren’t really interested in these undergraduate students’ opinions of cheap table wine at all; they were up to something else entirely. Prior to the taste-testing procedure, participants had been randomly assigned to either a “low-fear condition” or a “high-fear condition.” In the low-fear condition, the students were told the following:
Immediately after this experiment is over, I’m going to ask you to be in another brief experiment that will immediately follow this one. It will simply involve having you rate some pictures of girls according to how attractive you think they are. There may be a few other subjects there doing the same thing. I hope you don’t mind too much.
In contrast, those in the “high-fear” condition heard this information:
Immediately after this experiment is over, I’m going to ask you to be in another brief experiment that will immediately follow this one. It will involve having you engage in a discussion on interpersonal attractiveness with a group of girls. At the end of the discussion, you will rate each other on a number of the qualities that people think of as being desirable. For the purposes of that experiment it is necessary for the girls to have some idea of what kind of person you are so I will have them in the control room with me during this experiment so that they can listen to your answers. I hope you don’t mind too much.
To “enhance the reality” of the high-fear condition, participants in this condition also heard a prerecorded conversation of a group of girls over the intercom throughout the taste-testing period. Presumably the girls were giggling, or whatever it is that girls do when they talk insidiously about boys. The results should be obvious. The guys in the high-fear condition drank more alcohol (mean = .16 fluid ounces of wine per sip) during the free-range taste-testing than those in the low-fear condition (mean = .12 fluid ounces). That may not seem like a big difference, but the comparison reached statistical significance.
Next up we have another study from the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, this one published in 1983 by psychologists Natalie Korytnyk and David Perkins from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Korytnyk and Perkins were apparently bothered by the rising frequency of vandalism in their hometown, particularly graffiti. Since they had a hunch that alcohol was to blame for these colorful eyesores, the authors set up a clever little experiment to test this hypothesis.
Again, a group of male undergraduate students were recruited for the study. And again the participants were misled about the true purpose of the experiment. They were told that the study was blandly about the “the effects of alcohol on perception.” All participants were given two 6-ounce drinks but, in reality, the students were divided up randomly into two comparison groups: (1) those who were told that their drinks contained a mixture of vodka and tonic water and who actually got this combination; (2) those who were told that their drinks contained only tonic water. Within each of these two groups, half of the students actually got a dose of the alcohol (Smirnoff 80-proof vodka with .4 ounces of ethanol in each drink to prevent taste detection) and the other half got only the tonic water.
Upon finishing both drinks, the participant completed a bogus personality inventory over the next ten minutes, then the experimenter returned to administer their blood-alcohol intoxication (all participants who were told they’d be drinking the real drink were informed they were drunk, to rule out suggestibility effects), and then they were handed a paper-and-pencil spatial intelligence test. Over this saturation period of twenty minutes or so, mild inebriation ran its course for those in the actual alcohol conditions.
After five minutes of working on the test, the experimenter interrupted the participant and excused herself momentarily under the pretext of having to see the secretary down the hall before she left. The participant was asked to stay seated during this time and told they could resume the test as soon as the experimenter returned. In fact, the experimenter went only next door and observed the participant during this ten minute “alone time” through a one-way mirror:
The subject was surrounded on three sides by walls that were covered with posters (e.g., advertising current movies) and signs (e.g., “No Smoking”). Several of the posters and signs (and also the desk at which the subject sat) were partially covered with graffiti in a consistent manner for all subjects. The experimenter waited out of sight for 10 minutes and then returned to the experimental room to fully debrief the subject. Debriefing included asking him if he had added further graffiti anywhere in the room and verifying the accuracy of his response by checking the posters, signs and desk after he left.
You guessed it. The participants who actually drank the alcohol added more graffiti than those in the other conditions. The exact nature of the graffiti was inconsistent (and unspecified by the authors, perhaps because some smartass took certain liberties with the experimenter’s image), ranging from signing one’s autograph to hostile comments about the university administration. This may not sound terribly surprising, but the findings do tell us beyond mere conjecture that, yes, alcohol does indeed contribute causally to graffiti, which again may be why much of Belfast (with the exception of the genuine artwork commemorating The Troubles) resembles the side of an Amtrak train.
Perhaps the best overall theoretical framework for understanding the effects of alcohol on social cognition and behavior is offered by the psychologist Claude Steel, currently at Stanford University. The clearest presentation of Steele’s “alcohol myopia” theory can be found in a 1990 essay from American Psychologist with Robert Josephs of the University of Michigan. Steele and Josephs write that intoxication causes, “a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion, a state in which we can see the tree, albeit more dimly, but miss the forest altogether.”
One central aspect of the alcohol myopia theory is that alcohol reduces the influence of inhibiting cues and meanings, so that only the immediate provoking cue seems especially salient. For example, imagine you find yourself sitting next to your boss at a work party one evening and you’re still angry over the fact that he passed you up for a promotion a few days earlier. When you overhear him mention the position to someone else at the table, you instinctively bristle. You want to confront him about it. The alcohol myopia theory predicts that, under sober conditions, you’d think twice before venting your anger to your boss because there are all sorts of reasons (such as paying your rent or financing your daughter’s braces, or embarrassingly having to avoid your coworkers’ gaze for the next few weeks) why it may be best to muzzle your wrath and maintain a stiff upper lip until the next opportunity for promotion arises. But if you’ve already downed half the bottle of Chilean wine ordered for your table, your boss’s happenstance comment about the position would serve as a provoking cue without these inhibiting thoughts to derail your knee-jerk emotional reaction, and you’ll probably rather foolishly let him have it.
Perhaps it’s true then what Thomas de Quincy observed in his 1856 Confessions of an English Opium Eater: “It is most absurdly said, in popular language, of any man, that he is disguised in liquor; for, on the contrary, most men are disguised by sobriety.”
In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.