Alcohol As Placebo

A week ago I had dinner with a respected drug policy expert who disapproves of drug legalization because he sees big negative externalities from alcohol use, and expects legalizing other drugs to make that worse. Which makes some sense. But the picture changes once one realizes that alcohol’s disruptive effects are mostly in our heads:

We Brits believe that alcohol has magical powers – that it causes us to shed our inhibitions and become aggressive, promiscuous, disorderly and even violent.

But we are wrong. 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.

The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol. There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink alcohol. … In … the vast majority of cultures, … drinking is not associated with these undesirable behaviours … Alcohol is just a morally neutral, normal, integral part of ordinary, everyday life – about on a par with, say, coffee or tea. …

This variation cannot be attributed to different levels of consumption. … Instead the variation is clearly related to different cultural beliefs about alcohol. … This basic fact has been proved time and again … in carefully controlled scientific experiments – double-blind, placebos and all. To put it very simply, the experiments show that when people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol. …

Those who most strongly believe that alcohol causes aggression are the most likely to become aggressive when they think that they have consumed alcohol. … These experiments show that even when people are very drunk, if they are given an incentive (either financial reward or even just social approval) they are perfectly capable of remaining in complete control of their behaviour – of behaving as though they were totally sober. …

If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem. … I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee. I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six “units”) of coffee “can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour”, and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so. (more; HT Rob Wiblin)

Sometimes we want to behave well, and be around others who behave well, and sometimes we want to behave “badly,” and behave around others who behave badly. We also sometimes want to (often hypocritically) signal our disapproval of bad behavior, and pay costs to “do something” about it.

Our culture has coordinated to support all of these options, by coordinating to see alcohol and other “drugs” as inducing bad behavior. Clever eh? While we can signal our disapproval of bad behavior by opposing drugs, including their legalization, it is far less clear how much such actions actually reduce bad behavior. If we completely eliminated the symbolic items by which we now we identify situations where bad behavior is expected and tolerated, I expect we would quickly pick substitute symbols, and continue on with bad behavior. Because the fact is, much as we often want to signal disapproval of bad behavior, we nearly as often really enjoy behaving “badly.”

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