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Alcohol Increases Aggression Before You've Taken a Sip

New research confirms that exposure to the idea of alcohol heightens aggressive behavior.
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(Photo: Heiko Kueverling/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Heiko Kueverling/Shutterstock)

Two guys walk into a bar. After they’ve been sitting for a while, one makes an innocuous comment, and the second responds with an eruption of anger, telling his acquaintance in no uncertain terms that he had better watch his step. “It’s the alcohol talking,” the other patrons murmur.

In fact, the man who got triggered may have been nursing a ginger ale all night. Newly published research suggests the mere thought of alcohol—which would be unavoidable in this scenario—can heighten physical aggression.

The study confirms and expands upon a 2010 study from France which came to a similar conclusion. It specifically finds that responses to ambiguous provocations typically turn more aggressive if one has been exposed to the idea of drinking.

If you find yourself at a bar, party, sporting event, or some other alcohol-rich environment, these results "seem to suggest caution," in the researchers’ words.

A research team led by psychologist William Pedersen of California State University-Long Beach, describes its findings in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Its primary experiment featured 168 students, who began by spending five minutes writing an essay about abortion. They were told that another student would evaluate their work.

After writing the essay, they participated in a word-detection task in which strings of letters appeared briefly in front of their eyes. During this test, a series of drink-related words flashed on their computer screens for 34 milliseconds apiece. For half the participants, these included “beer” and “wine”; for the others, they were the names of non-alcoholic beverages such as “milk” and “water.”

Afterwards, most of the participants received their evaluation (those in the control condition were told they would receive it later). Some received a negative response beginning: “This is one of the worst essays I ever read.” Others read an ambiguous response that began: “I don’t even know where to begin.”

Finally, all participants held their hand in a bucket of ice water for five seconds—a preview of the punishment they were free to give the peer who evaluated their work. They then indicated how intense a dunking that student should receive.

The results: “When their partner’s feedback was clearly hostile, participants responded with relatively high levels of aggression” regardless of which set of words had flashed in front of their eyes. But when the feedback was ambiguous, those who had been exposed to the idea of alcohol were “much more aggressive” than those who had not.

A second experiment, which featured 276 students, replicated the first, except that after receiving the negative evaluation, some of the participants spent either seven or 15 minutes on an unrelated task (drawing a map of the campus from memory).

The researchers found the increased-aggression effect diminished at seven minutes, and was virtually absent after a 15-minute delay. Of course, if you’re in a tavern and reminders of alcohol are everywhere, that tapering off would not occur until you have left the building.

So if you find yourself at a bar, party, sporting event, or some other alcohol-rich environment, these results “seem to suggest caution,” in the researchers’ words. In such surroundings, a neutral-sounding remark can come across as fighting words—even if the aggrieved person has yet to wet his whistle.

When you say Budweiser ... you may be unwittingly provoking a heated confrontation.