The link between alcohol and aggression is well known, but a new study has found that it's possible to calm aggressive persons under the influence if they're given a rewarding task that tests their powers of concentration.
University of Kentucky psychologist Peter Giancola and student colleague Michelle Corman studied men who were each given three to four vodka and orange juice drinks to raise their blood alcohol level to 0.1, slightly over the legal limit for driving, and those who stayed sober.
In the first part of the study, 48 healthy male social drinkers between 21 and 33 were measured for aggressive responses.Some of the men drank three to four screwdrivers before the experiment, while others stayed sober.
Then they had them all compete against another person in a somewhat stressful game that required very quick responses. Every time they lost a round, they received a shock varying in intensity. Likewise, when they won a round they gave their opponent a shock. The idea was to see how alcohol affected the men's belligerence, as measured by the kinds of shocks they chose to hand out.
In the next part of the study, the researchers required 120 men, some drinkers, some no, to simultaneously perform a difficult memory task. The idea was to see if they could distract those who were "under the influence" from their "hostile" situation.
If they could tax their limited powers of concentration, perhaps they wouldn't process the fact that someone was zapping them with electricity.
The tests showed that the highest level of aggression was in the subjects who drank and were zapped but didn't take part in the memory task, Giancola said.
The lowest level of aggression was in those who drank with the added distraction. Those who had no alcohol in both labs fell somewhere in the middle.
The sober men were described as cognitively intact, so they could more easily attend to both provocations and distractions, resulting in some level of aggression.
"Drinking restricts our ability to pay attention, so we misbehave once our attention is narrowed to the most salient, attention-grabbing thing," Giancola said.
Giancola concluded that alcohol has the potential to both increase and decrease aggression, depending on where's one's attention is focused. The psychologists contemplate that working memory is crucial not only to barroom behaviour, but to all social behaviour, because it provides the capacity for self-reflection and strategic planning.
Activating working memory with salient, non-hostile, and health-promoting thoughts, in effect reduces the "cognitive space" available for inclinations towards violence, Giancola said.