Alcohol really is no excuse for bad behaviour – research reveals you're still the same person after a drink

Alcohol really is no excuse for bad behaviour – research reveals you're still the same person after a drink

Many of us know that feeling of waking up, headache in tow, struggling to remember what we said and did after that extra drink the night before. And then suddenly, the memories vividly resurface, writes Kathryn Francis.

Alcohol disinhibits us, making us say and do things that we’d otherwise keep under wraps. People will often drink to gain “Dutch courage” in a demanding situation.

Many of us can understand the appeal of having a drink before a blind date or a social event – it can help to calm our nerves and cultivate confidence. That’s because alcohol has a depressant effect which makes us feel more relaxed.

Of course, alcohol’s effects aren’t all positive. We’ve all adopted nicknames for the characters that we become after a few drinks.

Maybe you’re the “happy drunk”, or perhaps you’ve built a reputation for being the “aggressive drunk” who takes everything the wrong way after a pint.

The relationship between alcohol and antisocial behaviour is well documented – both anecdotally and in research. Plenty of arguments and fights stem from someone having had one too many.

Scientists believe we behave like this when drunk because we misinterpret social situations and lose our sense of empathy.

In essence, once we start slurring words and stumbling, our ability to understand or share the emotions of others goes out the door, too.

Drunk people lose their ability to interpret what the people around them are feeling.  Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock
Drunk people lose their ability to interpret what the people around them are feeling. Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock

Own your drunken decisions

If someone has done something wrong while under the influence of alcohol, we tend to give them a “get out of jail free card”, rather than hold them accountable for their actions. We also extend these excuses to ourselves.

But in our research, we’ve attempted to paint a clearer picture of how drinking alcohol, empathy, and moral behaviour are related.

It turns out that while consuming alcohol might affect our empathy, making us respond inappropriately to other people’s emotions and reactions, this doesn’t necessarily change our moral standards, or the principles we use to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong.

In a recent experiment, we gave participants shots of vodka and then measured their empathy and their moral decisions.

We presented images showing various people expressing emotions to our participants. After having a higher dose of vodka, people began to respond inappropriately to these emotional displays, reporting that they felt positively about sad faces and negatively about happy faces.

The more intoxicated people were, the more impaired their empathy became – having a few drinks weakened people’s abilities to understand and share the emotions of others.

In the experiment, people were asked to wear virtual reality headsets to make a moral decision within a simulation.  Standret/Shutterstock
In the experiment, people were asked to wear virtual reality headsets to make a moral decision within a simulation. Standret/Shutterstock

But did this then have an effect on their morality?

We had people tell us what they thought they would do in moral dilemmas and then also looked at what they actually did in a simulation of a moral dilemma in Virtual Reality. Consider what you might do in one of these situations:

A runaway trolley is heading down some rail tracks towards five construction workers who can’t hear it approaching. You’re standing on a footbridge in between the approaching trolley and the workers. In front of you, is standing a very large stranger. If you push this stranger onto the tracks below, their large bulk will stop the trolley. This one person will be killed but the five construction workers will be saved. Would you do it?

While alcohol might have impaired the empathy of our participants, it didn’t have an effect on how they judged these moral situations or how they acted in them.

If someone chose to push the person off the footbridge in order to save more lives while sober, they did the same thing when drunk.

If people refused to sacrifice the person’s life in the same situation because they believed that killing was wrong regardless of the consequences, they also did the same when drunk.

It turns out that while we might believe that alcohol changes our personalities, it doesn’t. You’re still the same person after a drink – your existing sense of morality left intact.

So while alcohol might affect how we interpret and understand the emotions of other people, we can’t blame our immoral behaviours on alcohol.

Drunken you has the same moral compass. And so you are responsible for your moral and immoral actions, whether you’ve had a few drinks or not.

This article was written by Kathryn Francis, Lecturer in Psychology, University of Bradford and was originally published on The Conversation.

This article is republished from theconversation.com under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

Alcohol really is no excuse for bad behaviour – research reveals you're still the same person after a drink

More on this topic

Ireland has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption in EUIreland has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption in EU

Why a glass of red wine is good for your gutWhy a glass of red wine is good for your gut

Irish alcohol consumption 80% above global average, says Alcohol Action IrelandIrish alcohol consumption 80% above global average, says Alcohol Action Ireland

1,535 fewer pubs in Ireland than 2005 with greatest number of closures in Cork1,535 fewer pubs in Ireland than 2005 with greatest number of closures in Cork

More in this Section

Flood relief scheme will be a catalyst for the cityFlood relief scheme will be a catalyst for the city

Will report critical of use of public services card ever be seen?Will report critical of use of public services card ever be seen?

A safe, boring budget is what we need as the drama of Brexit loomsA safe, boring budget is what we need as the drama of Brexit looms

Public service broadcasting - RTÉ might change but it must survivePublic service broadcasting - RTÉ might change but it must survive


Lifestyle

Make-up artist Terry Barber reveals the secret to pulling off the bold lip look.This is how to make black lipstick work in real life, according to a catwalk make-up pro

Off to the Japan? After a trip to Tokyo, Ella Walker outlines the best things to eat between matches.These are the dishes to try if you’re going to Tokyo for the Rugby World Cup

It still surprises me as I am achingly private and do not enjoy being at the centre of attention.This Much I Know: Actor Aislin McGuckin

Bride Geraldine O’Donovan felt as wonderful as she looked on her big day — knowing she was supporting a cause close to her heart as she donned her wedding gown.Wedding on the Week: Supporting a cause close to their hearts

More From The Irish Examiner