Politics & Policy

Think Before You Drink

Talking under the influence? They're still your words.

News of Mel Gibson’s expletive-laced, alcohol-soaked rant loosed a torrent of contempt for the actor. He was condemned as an anti-Semite by the Anti Defamation League, Hollywood powerbrokers (prominent among them Ari “Now we know the truth” Emanuel), and an assortment of pundits. These accusers subscribe to the in vino veritas school, which teaches that drinking reveals the authentic self. But does it? Is alcohol a truth serum or “a maker of madness,” as Jack London once put it?

#ad#We know that intoxication can be accompanied by aggression. When faced with a frustrating task research subjects given two or three drinks get angrier than their placebo-treated counterparts. They are also more likely than the control subjects to respond with hostility when threatened. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the physiological effects of alcohol on the brain. Yet there is a social component as well. That is, alcohol-induced behaviors are driven in part by what we expect alcohol to do for us, and what we think will be excused because we were under the influence. This helps explain why roving groups of men in Tokyo and London drink staggering quantities of alcohol, but only London is facing a wave of bar violence.

Psychologist Alan Marlatt of the University of Washington, a man with an apparent sense of humor, built a complete bar in his laboratory and served drinks to college student volunteers that were actually non-alcoholic but tasted like the real thing. On videotape, his subjects can be seen laughing, carousing, and swaying tipsily in their seats. Then Dr. Marlatt enters the “bar” and announces to his subjects that they haven’t really been drinking. Their surprise and embarrassment is evident.

Some drinkers actually welcome the liberating effect of drink. The actor Richard Burton knew his way around a bottle. “I rather like my reputation, actually, that of a spoiled genius from the Welsh gutter, a drunk, a womanizer; it’s rather an attractive image,” he once said. Were Sir Richard to belly up to Dr. Marlatt’s bar, his drunk-genius-womanizer would have likely materialized after a few mean placebo whiskeys.

Finally, the laboratory of everyday life tells us, and formal psychological studies confirm, that most people feel less anxious after a drink or two, whether they are problem drinkers or not. True, alcohol may bring out statements we feel too restricted to express while sober, but do such disclosures represent the drinker’s “true” self? Perhaps they do, but don’t forget that efforts to suppress them are also a product of the self and even drunk people still hold back some impulses. If the worst aspects of our character expressed while intoxicated are authentic then so too are our sensible efforts to suppress them. Manners, after all, maketh man.

Thus, both observation and experimentation show that the actions of an inebriated person are subject to a cocktail of many influences: the pharmacological effects of alcohol which suspend inhibitions and lower the threshold for aggression, as well as social norms and personal expectations. This suggests that the ravings of an intoxicated person may indeed reflect attitudes, beliefs, or intentions he truly does possess, but that do not necessarily dominate his consciousness or motivate behavior when he is sober. Either these sentiments are not that important to his sober self, or he is good at keeping them contained.

Which bring us back to Mel Gibson and countless other people who have said or done something while intoxicated that they insist is alien to their character. Or, as Gibson put it, “I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.” His “vitriolic and harmful words,” he claimed, were “blurted out in a moment of insanity.” Perhaps.

We can never truly know a person’s private thoughts, but his actions are broadcast loud and clear and unlike his thoughts can cause serious harm to the rest of us.

This is why every drinker has a moral obligation to examine what he does when intoxicated. And to remember that the “inauthentic self” of the boozy moment is the stepchild of the “authentic self” who pleads forgiveness the next morning. Why? Because a remorseful drinker almost always has substantial knowledge of his history and in spite of it set anew the stage on which that history could repeat itself.

– Dr. Keith Humphreys conducts addiction treatment at Stanford University. Sally Satel is a psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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