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Column Alcohol doesn’t make us drunken idiots – that’s society’s fault

Research shows that drinking alone doesn’t make people flirt and start fights. So the answer must lie in ourselves, writes Shane Leavy.

I DIDN’T START drinking alcohol until I was 24, extremely late for Ireland. Most of my peers were drinking by 15 or 16, social life in college was strongly focused on a binge-drinking culture where students seeking the cheapest alcohol swarmed to pretty horrible night clubs with sticky floors.

When I did finally start drinking I was working in a high school in the south of Japan. There my colleagues would gather roughly once a month for an enkai, a ‘drinking party’ which involved speeches, lots of raw fish and endless booze. I noticed two things about these enkai.

First, the mood tended to be boisterous, cheerful and noisy, even before teachers started to get drunk. Many teachers had to drive home after the party, so they sat among the rest sipping green tea. Yet these sober teachers were no less merry than the drunk. It made me wonder if it was not the alcohol itself that was making people behave differently, it was the very presence of alcohol – a cultural signal that we could let our guards down and make some noise.

Second, while I initially eased myself into drinking quite slowly, on one occasion I found my cup being constantly topped up by a colleague with shochu, a potent Japanese spirit. I knocked back quite a bit of shochu, even reaching a point where I started drinking beer instead in an attempt to sober up.

So I got drunk. When I walked I found it difficult to keep a straight line, when I talked my words were trying to blur at the edges. The typical physical consequences of drunkenness, then, were all there. But my mind was also there, struggling to control my less obedient body – I told people later it was like trying to control my body with chopsticks – but I lacked the decreased sense of inhibition and bloated sense of self worth that people always describe as going hand in hand with heavy alcohol use.

‘Why did I not go shouting and laughing and dancing?’

In fact I felt completely clear-minded, even a little self-conscious over my degraded balance. As I walked back to my hotel that evening, I was extremely cautious to cross the streets at pedestrian crossings, very aware of any threats that would be heightened because of my difficulties with balancing – fight or flight.

So what happened? Why did I not go shouting and laughing and dancing about the place like some other drunk people do? Social anthropologist Kate Fox writing on BBC may have an answer:

In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, “Oi, what you lookin’ at?” and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, “Hey babe, fancy a shag?” and start groping each other.

Fox explains that people who drink behave the way they expect alcohol to affect their behaviour. That is, in Mediterranean cultures drinkers consider alcohol a ‘morally neutral, normal, integral part of ordinary, everyday life’, much like tea or coffee here, and as a result they do not behave wildly when drunk. When Irish or British people get raging drunk and lose all inhibitions it is their cultural expectation that is changing their behaviour, not the action of alcohol as a drug.

When in these experiments we are given what we think are alcoholic drinks – but are in fact non-alcoholic “placebos” – we shed our inhibitions.We become more outspoken, more physically demonstrative, more flirtatious, and, given enough provocation, some (young males in particular) become aggressive. Quite specifically, those who most strongly believe that alcohol causes aggression are the most likely to become aggressive when they think that they have consumed alcohol.

I grew up in a household with low alcohol consumption, I never saw my parents drunk and the occasional beer or wine consumed was treated in much the same way as tea or coffee – drunk for the pleasure of the taste and not for any behavioural changes it prompted. So perhaps I simply had not absorbed the same cultural message as many of my peers, I hadn’t concluded that alcohol necessarily led to wild, uninhibited behaviour.

All interesting, though the point that astonishes me the most is that people were apparently able to get hammered drunk on placebos. Why do they bother buying expensive booze at all? Just have their friends present them with flavoured water and convince them it is vodka – free obliteration.

Shane Leavy is a freelance journalist studying for a master’s in applied social research, and blogging at The Harvest, where this post first appeared.

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