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Alcohol Increases Aggression; No Drinking Required

French researchers confirm that alcohol-related cues increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors, even if one hasn’t actually imbibed.
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Feeling aggressive and hostile toward the people around you? Perhaps you’ve had one too many.

Thoughts, that is. About alcohol.

Over the past five years, several studies have found exposure to alcohol-related cues in one’s immediate environment can increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors. A paper just published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin adds to this evidence, reporting that even a subliminal reference to drinking may make one more likely to harm another human.

A French research team led by psychologist Baptiste Subra of the University of Grenoble conducted two experiments to test how the idea of liquor (as opposed to its ingestion) affects behavior. The first, which confirmed 2006 research by the University of North Carolina’s Bruce Bartholow, found test participants unscrambled aggression-related words more rapidly following a quick-flash, 300-millisecond exposure to a photo of an alcohol bottle.

Tellingly, this effect — which suggests aggressive thoughts had been activated and were easily accessible — was just as strong as it was in a second group of people, who were briefly exposed to a photo of a weapon. Thinking about a Guinness and thinking about a gun seem to be equally effective ways to trigger belligerence.

In the second test, 78 French university students were subliminally exposed to one of three types of words: alcohol-related (such as vodka), aggression-related (assault) or neutral (water). They then undertook a “boring and difficult task,” which became still more annoying when their computer screens froze. At that point, the person in charge of the experiment informed them he didn’t know how to fix the machines and told them they’d have to start over.

Afterward, the students were asked to rate the experimenter’s competence on a one-to-seven scale. “The form said the department chair would use the ratings to determine which experimenters to hire for future studies,” Subra and her colleagues noted. “Thus participants could directly harm the experimenter by giving him negative ratings.”

Which, it turns out, they were more likely to do if they had been exposed to either an alcohol- or aggression-related word. Members of those two groups cut the experimenter less slack, giving him lower marks than those who had been exposed to the neutral word. As in the first experiment, there was no significant difference between those exposed to the alcohol-related and aggression-related words.

These findings have clear implications for the regulation of alcohol advertising. “In some countries, it is common practice to forbid alcohol consumption during public events such as soccer games,” the researchers note. “But is it wise to display alcohol commercials during these same events? Our results suggest it is not.”

There are undoubtedly other cues that trigger feelings of hostility. But it’s sobering to realize how the mere concept of intoxication seems to stimulate anti-social attitudes. When you walk into a bar, you may have to pay for your drinks, but the aggressive attitudes they provoke are apparently on the house.