Three coworkers head to a bar after a long day. They decide to go shot-for-shot, all of the same poison, and it gets a bit out of hand. An hour later, one coworker is foaming at the mouth, looking to fight any mammal in sight; another is crying uncontrollably and stomping on their jacket; the third is delighted by the other two, giddily recording the whole thing. Uh… what’s going on here? Research on the effects of alcohol yields some clues: It may be possible to predict how people will behave when they’re drunk way before the bar fight breaks out Effects of alcohol and trait anger on physical aggression in men. Parrott, D.J., Zeichner, A. Department of Psychology, University of Georgia, Athens. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 2002 Mar;63(2):196-204..
Freedom of Slurred Speech — The Need-to-Know
Alcohol is a disinhibitor, meaning it suppresses inhibitory neurotransmitters in our brain, leaving us feeling more impulsive, less anxious, and less restricted (and sometimes broke). Research suggests alcohol affects people’s behavior in different ways depending on their personalities and genetic makeup. And according to a recent study on alcohol and aggression, alcohol simply brings out qualities we already have The disguise of sobriety: unveiled by alcohol in persons with an aggressive personality. Giancola, P.R., Parrott, D.J., Silvia, P.J. et al. University of Kentucky. Journal of Personality. 2012 Feb;80(1):163-85.. (Though how often do we hear someone say, “The drunk me, that’s the real me?”) (Also Check Out: 60 Healthier Drinks for Boozing) In other words, it might be possible to predict how people will act under the influence of alcohol based on their sober personalities. Here are a few types that may sound familiar:
The Aggressive Drunk. People— especially men— who are prone to anger or aggression while sober are more likely to act aggressive when they’re drunk Effects of alcohol and trait anger on physical aggression in men. Parrott, D.J., Zeichner, A. Department of Psychology, University of Georgia, Athens. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 2002 Mar;63(2):196-204. The influence of trait anger on the alcohol-aggression relation in men and women. Giancola, P.R. Department of Psychology, University of Kentocky, Lexington, Kentucky. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. 2002 Sep;26(9):1350-8.. (Shocker, we know.) Researchers describe these folks as impulsive and short-sighted. And forget breathalyzers— a blood test might reveal who’s likely to pick a fight with the coat rack. There’s evidence that, in males and females, certain genes predict the ability to control anger, which affects sober and drunk behavior Genetic effects on anger control and their interaction with alcohol intoxication: a self-report study. Johansson, A., Santtila, P., Corander, J. et al. Department of Psychology and Logopedics, Abo Akademi University, 20500 Turku, Finland. Biological Psychology. 2010 Oct;85(2):291-8..
The Calm Drunk. One study suggests those who keep it cool stay that way when drinking, even after someone provokes them Effects of alcohol and trait anger on physical aggression in men. Parrott, D.J., Zeichner, A. Department of Psychology, University of Georgia, Athens. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 2002 Mar;63(2):196-204.. People who are forward-thinking and consider the consequences of their actions when sober are less likely to get out of hand when they drink. (“He’s a jerk, just walk away…”)
The Stressed Drunk. When stressed, people sometimes drink to unwind. (“A toast to this job we hate!”) But one study found drinking can actually prolong stress, depending on how soon after a stressful event someone drinks. Next time the boss offers to buy, consider declining.
The Giddy Drunk. In addition to personality traits, physiological traits also influence drunk behavior. Research suggests people with a high tolerance and a history of alcoholism need more drinks to feel the buzz, and these heavy drinkers are usually more sensitive to the euphoric effects of alcohol Rewarding, stimulating, and sedative responses and relationship to future binge drinking. King, A.C., de Wit, H., McNamara, P.J., et al. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosicence , The University of Chicago, Chicago, Il, Archives of General Psychiatry 2011; 68(4): 389-99.. So every beer’s another step on the way to happiness— that is, until the next morning…
The Drowsy Drunk. Take me drunk, I’m home. Unlike heavy drinkers, people who rarely have more than a sip of Chardonnay tend to feel sedate when they drink Rewarding, stimulating, and sedative responses and relationship to future binge drinking. King, A.C., de Wit, H., McNamara, P.J., et al. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosicence , The University of Chicago, Chicago, Il, Archives of General Psychiatry 2011; 68(4): 389-99.. Prepare to be carrying these folks into a cab after a night out.
Scrappy Hour — Your Action Plan
The characteristics that come out after a few rounds at the bar may be hidden at work or in other social situations, since alcohol can make people act without worrying about consequences. Luckily, there are ways to avoid getting into a fight or drowning in a river of tears.
- Steer clear of situations that tend to exacerbate drunk behavior. In the case of aggression, certain situations (like not-so-happy hour) can make people more likely to get violent.
- Observe others carefully, since people can be drunk even when they seem sober. (Hint: The guy hugging the toilet all night is not sober. Yet.)
- Know how much is too much. “Heavy drinking” means more than four drinks per day for guys and more than three for women.
- It might be a good idea not to drink at all when feeling angry, sad, or depressed.
- And if you’ve already got all the safety stuff covered, just make sure you can tell everybody what they were up to the night before.
Jason Edmonds: Alcohol tends to amplify certain personality traits-- such as aggression, amicability, etc-- but it won't typically create a 180 degree change. For example, a person who habitually becomes aggressive when intoxicated likely has tendencies toward aggression and frustration when sober as well. They might be able to better control these emotions when sober, but they're still present on some level.
Jessica Magidson: Although we'd like to think that there's a single explanation out there for what predicts if you are a "happy" or "sad" drunk before the night begins, that may not be the case. What often predicts how we'll act when drunk is a combination of numerous factors, many of which we probably don't have control over. The individual brings some things to the equation, some that can be seen as more stable (i.e., personality, genetic factors), and some situational (i.e., how much did you eat that day? how much sleep did you get?), but the reality is that this "mixes" with the environment one is drinking in, both in terms of who and what is around you and what you are drinking.