When you drink, you are what you think

"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." — Anthropologist Kate Fox, writing for the BBC. (Via Ed Yong)


  1. Absolutely. This is why there is such a difference between the Italian who drinks five glasses of wine with dinner and an after-dinner grappa, and the [insert some other nationality here so I don’t offend anyone specific] who drinks five or six beers and gets in fights at the pub.

    I grew up in Italy and elsewhere on the continent, but here in the States a friend of mine went for a check-up and was asked how many drinks he had a week. “Six or seven?” he said. At this point the doctor gave him a lecture and some information about being an alcoholic.

    I think I would be terrified to tell a doctore here I have two glasses of wine or so every night.

    I think there was an interesting article in a New Yorker a year or so ago where the author was discussing this, and also went to Peru or somewhere, where the men would drink incredible amounts of grain alcohol every night, until they fell asleep. Back in the states, none of the researchers would believe him until, under their supervision, he drank an entire bottle and walked himself home.

  2. The comments are interesting in noting that she’s funded by brewers… nonetheless I agree with her point.

  3. That’s thought provoking (being british…)

    This bit in particular is interesting:

    “These experiments show that even when people are very drunk, if they are given an incentive… they are perfectly capable of remaining in complete control of their behaviour – of behaving as though they were totally sober.”

    Not sure I agree; I’ve known plenty of (very drunk) people who insist they’re ok to drive home (for instance) and really believe it. But you’d never in a million years let them near a car, they’re motor skills, co-ordination etc are severely compromised. Don’t think that’s a ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ but a real effect of the alcohol.

    1. Controlling behavior does not mean having normal reaction times and reflexes.  It means not shouting rude things, getting in fights, or vandalizing property.  The reaction time impacts are physiological whereas the hooliganism is psychological.  That was the point of the study.  It is not intended to debunk the idea of drunk driving being bad.

      1. Exactly. When you’re drunk, you can maintain self-control if you actually want to. You stumble more and you have a harder time thinking and your reflexes are shot, but you can keep yourself from fighting or doing other idiotic things if you were willing to do so to begin with. Most people drink so they can lose their minds. They want to act like idiots and animals and drinking gives them what they think is an excuse.

    2. control of behavior and  control of motor vehicles are not the same things.

      But also, there are plenty of people who shouldn’t drive sober.

  4.  This is why a Mormon girl can drink a dixie cup of wine cooler, and suddenly throw off her clothes and have random sex… if you want the alcohol to remove your cultural inhibitions, it will…

  5. Were the experiments inspired by “Cheers”? I seem to recall an episode in which, after the bar’s liquor license expired, Rebecca served non-alcoholic beer only to see everyone get completely shitfaced.

  6. Um, we covered this in anthropology class in college back in 1982.  Is this supposedly cutting-edge research?

  7. This is *not* new stuff. I recall reading some very similar words back in the 60s.  It seems there have been further refining experiments in the intervening years, but the basic findings remain as they were then.

    It’s interesting to me that many alcohol suppliers actively promote the ideas of promiscuity and aggressive behavior in their advertising.

  8. Seems to work for caffeine as well – I remember reading the results of an experiment with coffee. Apparently, those who drank decaf, but thought it was regular, had trouble falling asleep, while those who got caffeine, but thought they hadn’t, were able to sleep as usual.
    No idea the amounts of caffeine (and I’ve convinced myself that I shouldn’t have any after noon, or I’ll have insomnia), but it was interesting.

    1. Hmm, not so sure about that. I vividly remember lying wide awake at 3am one night, feeling my heartbeat in my chest, after having a grande chai latte from starbucks at 8pm while thinking I’d be okay because I had gotten tea instead of coffee.

        1. Right, that’s my point. Jon Wallace said “those who got caffeine, but thought they hadn’t, were able to sleep as usual” but my experience was thinking I had gotten a low(er) caffeine drink while later my mind was clearly not able to convince my body it was not being stimulated by caffeine.

    2. I dunno – just the other day, I had more coffee than usual, later than usual, at a breakfast joint.  I didn’t think of it as having coffee ‘late’, because, you know, it was at breakfast (which I happened to be eating in the afternoon).  I lay awake fidgeting and twitching for half an hour or more that night before it occurred to me why I might be having trouble sleeping.

  9. Laurel and Hardy’s 1930 short, “Blotto,” has them drinking what they think is Ollie’s wife’s liquor and getting drunk. What they don’t know is that she had replaced it with tea after overhearing their plotting. They sober up pretty quickly after she reveals the truth, and pulls out her rifle for the final chase scene. Funny from beginning to end.

  10. This seems to confirm my hypothesis that a lot of people have a couple drinks not because they want to get drunk, but because they want an excuse to act stupid.

  11. The experiment where people given non-alcoholic drinks think that they’re drunk is interesting, but doesn’t have much to do with the argument in this article. I’d be interested to know what happens when people are given a lot of alcohol but don’t realise it. I suppose to be fair, the control group would need to be given a sedative that doesn’t claim to have the inhibition-lowering effect of alcohol, to avoid people figuring out which group they’re in from how they feel.

  12. Generally, this makes perfect sense to me – alcohol lowers inhibitions, but they have to be inhibitions against things you have an underlying tendency to.

    When I’ve had a few, I get chattier, flirtier, tell dumber jokes, and am often more forthcoming about personal information.  That’s because my basic inclination seems to be to friendliness, and my inhibitions against that take the form of shyness.  (Well, that and my standards of what makes an acceptably secluded bit of vegetation to pee in seem to be somewhat reduced, but I think that’s down to the 95% water in beer, more than the 5% alcohol).

    I really don’t see alcohol inclining me to fighting, stealing, or deliberately trashing stuff (not counting accidentally trashing something from clumsiness), but if I had those impulses to begin with but stifled them out of some sense of guilt or fear of repercussions, then maybe it would.

    1. Though that’s a possibility, that’s not exactly what the article is suggesting. Rather, it’s suggesting that if you become chattier and flirtier after drinking, it’s because this is how you perceive you should be when slightly drunk. The idea is that drunks tend to act out their preconceived notion of being drunk, not that drunks are more “true” to their basic inclinations (or else you’d be suggesting that more Englighmen have a “basic inclination” to fighting then Italians, or something).

  13. I note that the BBC news page on this  has already closed its comments after 1073  and 12 hours. Many comments pointed out the most important thing : Kate Fox works for a  non acadaemic body funded by the alcohol industry.
     – I was certainly taken in by listening to the radio prog “hey there is this scientist from Oxford on the radio saying that conventional thinking about alcohol is wrong” – Rule 1 check the source- Rule 2 Good researchers go to peer reviewed journals before they go to the media.- The research might be perfectly valid but Shame on you BBC for not highlighting the alcohol funding link on the radio prog or text http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b015p86z-The news story now has the phrase “SIRC has conducted research for companies in the alcohol industry, as well as the government and others”

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