Happy Drunk?

To follow up on my blog post last week titled "Hey Bartender", which was a big hit, here is a discussion on social behavior as it relates to drunkenness with celebrity Mel Gibson as the target. No, I don't have any ill-will toward the Lethal Weapon star, but he is the ideal poster-boy for showing what happens when people drink too much and have certain personality flaws. I have seen it all too often. I'm sure everyone has known someone in their lifetime who will come to mind when reading this. My psychology background helps out tremendously. I look forward to your feedback and comments.

Following Henny Youngman's advice, if you're going to get drunk and do something tonight you'll regret tomorrow morning, sleep late. Most of us know that drinking can lead us to say and do things we wouldn't otherwise, and that can cause embarassment. Or worse. When Mel Gibson was pulled over for a DUI in 2006, he ended up in jail, and during the arrest, he became so belligerent that he went into an anti-semitic tirade. Needless to say, it wasn't a well-timed career move. The DUI was reduced to a misdemeanor, but the reputation damage caused by Gibson's words couldn't be pardoned by a judge.

If Gibson were sober, it seems unlikely that he would have expressed such strident, antagonistic views, especially not while wearing handcuffs. If the primary reason most people drink is to have a good time, why does alcohol dispose some people to aggressive or hostile behavior?

Considering the fact that alcohol is one of the oldest and most widely consumed beverages, we remain surprisingly inept at answering that question. Although we've been getting buzzed for over 5,000 years, it's only been in the past 50 that we've made much progress undertstanding alcohol and some of its more specific effects on behavior.

Alarmingly, over half of all murders occur under the influence of alcohol. Some high estimates go as far as to suggest 80 % of murderers were intoxicated at the time of attack. Equally troubling, as much as two-thirds of domestic violence occurs when the abusive partner is drunk.

Despite these sobering statistics, the majority of drinkers do not become mean; estimates suggest that only around 25 % of tipplers are mean drunks.

It's somewhat perplexing that two people can consume the same substance and have completely different behavioral outcomes. One person might have a cocktail to facilitate social interactions and become the life of the party, while another's belligerence might instead have anti-social effects and spoil the fun.

Although most people drink peacefully and merrily, the 25 % who become aggressive under the influence do so consistently. The 2006 DUI wasn't the first time that sipping firewater landed Gibson in hot water. In a 1991 interview he made offensive remarks about gays that drew criticism; he later admitted he had been drinking vodka at the time.

Who is likely to become an aggressive drunk?

There is no label on a person that easily identifies them as a mean drunk, but some characteristics can offer clues. Alcohol does not implant a behavior which isn't already present, so it's doubtful that a sober pacifist would suddenly take up arms after a few libations. Grandpa's cough medicine likely only facilitates the punch for people who already have aggressive tendencies. Research has found that individuals with a criminal history are more likely to express aggression when drinking. Also, problem drinking, such as alcoholism or binge-drinking, is associated with an increased likelihood for a brawl. Several studies of character traits have found that people who are not only angrier in general, but more expressive of their anger are more likely to resort to fighting when tipsy.

As much as we've searched for traits to help spot mean drunks before they strike, there doesn't seem to be any one characteristic which indubitably identifies one. Ultimately, because those who become aggressive while drinking tend to do so consistently, the best way to identify a future mean drunk is to know who has been one in the past.

If interested, I can follow up this post with some leading theories proposed over the years...

Comments

mmclean

Love these articles! It is very interesting. It can be so scary when seemingly nice people get very nasty when drunk. I wonder if stress has anything to do with it. I know a few people from college that would be scary one time they were drunk and happy go lucky the next...

mnagy

Very true, Megan. It makes you wonder if people have that angry gene that gets activated when agitated or stressed. Stress plays a big role. Stress causes the body to breakdown more easily and makes it more susceptible to feeling the effects of alcohol. That's why its always a good idea to access someone's stress level (such as a bad day or worse, grieving) prior to drinking, especially if they want to get smashed, because it helps you predict it.