Break­ing Down The Drunken Truth Of It

MidWeek (Hawaii) - - Front Page - Amy Alkon

I’ve been with my boyfriend for nine months. We are both in our late 20s and go out drink­ing a lot with our friends. I’ve no­ticed that when he’s drunk, he’ll be su­per af­fec­tion­ate and say re­ally gushy things about me, our get­ting mar­ried, etc. Are his true feel­ings com­ing out, or is he just talk­ing lovey-dovey be­cause of the booze?

You’ve got to be won­der­ing what it would take for you two to live hap­pily ever after … cir­rho­sis?

Many peo­ple in­sist that their per­son­al­ity changes when they’re all likkered up. Re­mind them of some out­ra­geous thing they did the other night at the bar and they’ll go all protest-y and point the fin­ger at Jack, Jose or the Cap­tain (as in, Daniel, Cuervo, or Morgan). The re­al­ity is, re­search on drink­ing’s ef­fects on per­son­al­ity by clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Rachel Wino­grad finds that be­yond one area of per­son­al­ity — ex­tro­ver­son, which in­creases slightly in drunken peo­ple — we’re all pretty much the same jerks we are when we’re sober.

This con­sis­tency that Wino­grad and her col­leagues ob­serve makes sense vis-a-vis how psy­chol­o­gists find that per­son­al­ity has a strong ge­netic com­po­nent and in­volves ha­bit­ual pat­terns of thoughts, feel­ings, and be­hav­ior. (There men­sions: con­sci­en­tious­ness, agree­able­ness, emo­tional sta­bil­ity, open­ness to ex­pe­ri­ence, and ex­tro­ver­sion.) A body of ty traits are largely con­sis­tent across time and sit­u­a­tions.

How­ever, the skep­tic in you might ask: If per­son­al­ity doesn’t change after, say, three Sriracha mar­gar­i­tas, how come we’ve all seen peo­ple be­hav­ing dif­fer­ently when they’re sauced? Well, ac­cord­ing to re­search by so­cial psy­chol­o­gists Claude M. Steele and Robert A. Josephs, the be­hav­ioral changes of drunken ex­cess ap­pear to be caused not by al­co­hol it­self but by al­co­hol-driven changes in per­cep­tion that they call “al­co­hol my­opia.” Al­co­hol ap­pears to re­strict at­ten­tion, giv­ing a per­son a sort of tun­nel vi­sion.

To ex­plain this more sim­ply, al­co­hol ba­si­cally turns a per­son into the chimp ver­sion of them­selves — fo­cus­ing on what­ever’s right in their face and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ba­sic emo­tions in re­sponse, like fear, lust, anger, or blub­ber­ing af­fec­tion. Mean­while, al­co­hol di­min­ishes their abil­ity for men­tal pro­cess­ing of any com­plex­ity — no­tably think­ing that nor­mally leads a per­son to say, “Well, on the other hand…” (that lit­tle voice of rea­son that pipes up in more sober mo­ments).

In­ter­est­ingly, the re­search on al­co­hol my­opia de­bunks a widely be­lieved myth — the as­sump­tion that get­ting drunk will nec­es­sar­ily lead a per­son to be much less in­hib­ited. It may, but it may also lead the other way — to in­creased in­hi­bi­tion and less risk tak­ing. That may be hard to be­lieve when you’re watch­ing your brother, the up­tight ac­coun­tant, do a drunken strip­tease on the bar. How­ever, re­call that what­ever’s right in front of the sloshed per­son’s face tends to drive how their be­hav­ior.

A fas­ci­nat­ing ex­am­ple of by psy­chol­o­gist Tara MacDon­ald and her col­leagues. Pa­trons en­ter­ing a bar got their hands stamped — seem­ingly just to al­low them to re-en­ter with­out stand­ing in line again. Some had their hands stamped with the omi­nous warn­ing (within a lit­tle cir­cle) “AIDS KILLS.” Oth­ers got a cir­cle con­tain­ing the neb­u­lous state­ment “SAFE SEX” or — in the con­trol group — a smi­ley face. The 372 hand-stamped par­tic­i­pants were later di­vided into two groups based on blood al­co­hol level. (Those with a blood al­co­hol level that was .08 per­cent or above were the “in­tox­i­cated group.”)

The re­searchers found that the “in­tox­i­cated” peo­ple with the smi­ley or “SAFE SEX” stamp were more likely than sober par­tic­i­pants to have sex with­out a con­dom. How­ever, in­tox­i­cated peo­ple with the fear-in­duc­ing “AIDS KILLS” mes­sage ex­pressed less will­ing­ness to have un­pro­tected sex than even sober peo­ple the re­searchers sur­veyed. This is right in line with how al­co­hol leads to “tun­nel vi­sion” that makes what­ever’s right in front of a per­son prom­i­nent.

Get­ting back to your boyfriend’s drunken mushy­gushies, con­sider how the tun­nel vi­sion of al­co­hol my­opia likely plays out for him as he looks at you in the mo­ment at the bar: “She’s so sparkly and nice…” What’s miss­ing, how­ever, is all the adult com­plex­ity — all that “on the other hand…” think­ing that he’d likely do in more sober mo­ments: whether you two can make it as life­long part­ners, whether he’s up for cre­at­ing lit­tle peo­ple who’d call him Daddy, etc. In other words, there’s prob­a­bly some Give it some time — tempt­ing al­co­hol my­opia to answer the ques­tion “How will you make him hurry up and pro­pose?” Two words: “open bar.”

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