Are violent drunks giving the rest of us a bad name? Alcohol consumption and violence

We all know that drinking alcohol changes the way people think and can make them act strangely right? We also know that alcohol is involved in more than 50% of violent crimes and about 75% of partner violence. The question is, why the connection?

A recent paper I published suggests that drugs and alcohol can not themselves be thought to cause violence. Still, the relationship exists, so what gives?

(Before you go any further, if you’re unclear about the difference between causation and association, I suggest you read this article)

Your brain and alcohol abuse

The thought altering effects of consuming alcohol, and most drugs, can be said to affect something called executive functioning (EF). What exactly makes up this type of functioning is a source of some debate, but let’s just say that it refers to attention, strategic planning, reasoning, thought flexibility, and the ability to process information in working memory (an important type of memory used in learning).

You can probably already tell that this type of brain function is extremely important and that different people possess different levels of it. I can also tell you that alcohol consumption has  been shown to reduce overall executive functioning. If you drink alcohol, or have ever seen someone drink, this probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

The thing is that alcohol consumption messes up everyone’s EF, though obviously, the more you drink, the more affected you become. Still, given the fact that more than 50% of Americans report at least one binge drinking episode a year and less than 7% are involved in violent crime, something else must be at play, right?

Aggressive personality and irritability

As I mentioned earlier, I published a paper showing that aggressive personality, which I measured using 5 different tests, contributes far more to violent behavior than drug use alone. Still, a recent study found that irritability alone could account for some aggressive behavior. Still, the more interesting finding had to do with alcohol-related EF problems and irritability together. The experiment was pretty interesting, so let’s go over it for a bit.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky took more than 300 students and gave them a whole bunch of tests assessing their EF and their overall level of irritability. Afterward, half of the students were given alcohol to drink (about 3-4 drinks per person) and the other half was given a similar number of drinks that contained no alcohol but were sprayed before being handed to smell the same. The students were then asked to play a game that pitted them against another person. The secret was that there was no game and no other person, the winner and loser in each round was pre-determined. Every time the student “won” they got to give the other player a shock, but every time they lost, they themselves got shocked. As the game went on, the shocks the participants got increased in intensity. The researchers wanted to see how the students would react and how large the shocks they would give back would be.

The results showed that the more mistakes people made in their initial EF testing (and therefore the less overall EF capability they showed) the more aggressive they were. This makes sense, as people who are less able to plan, think ahead, and control their behavior would be more likely to engage in things that would hurt them, or misjudge events and think react inappropriately. Irritability was also shown to affect aggression, but this time only for men and intoxicated women.

The effect of alcohol abuse on aggression and violence

When the whole thing was put together the researchers found that for drunk men only, reduced EF and increased irritability worked together to generate even more aggression that was shown for all the other participants. For the simplest example think back to anyone you know who is pretty quick to react anyway and is a little too easily pissed-off. Chances are they become a pretty mean drunk who likes to get in fights.

Obviously this makes sense if you know someone like that, but in terms of helping us make decisions about who should be considered dangerous and who shouldn’t, especially when consuming alcohol, this research helps further explain why we see such a strong connection between alcohol abuse and violence or aggression.

The way I see it there’s a relatively small number of people (mostly men) who is normally pretty aggressive, irritable, and lacking in judgment and self-control, who often get violent when they drink alcohol. For them, many alcohol drinking episodes end badly, and since they’re the most visible of the aggressive drinkers, their behavior produces an association between alcohol consumption per se and violence. For the rest of us, alcohol consumption rarely leads to violence, but violence rarely occurs without drinking alcohol either, so we hardly ever enter the equation at all. That’s why the pattern holds.


Godlaski, A. J., Giancola, P. R. (2009). Executive function, Irritability, and Alcohol-Related Aggression. Psychology of Addictive Behavior, 23, 391-404.

Jaffe, A. et al., (2009). Drug Use, Personality and Partner Violence: A Model of Separate, Additive, Contributions in an Active Drug User Sample. The Open Addiction Journal, 2.

About Addiction: Basics, Smoking and drugs

Whether you are interested in addiction as a whole or specific drugs, we have it all here.  Read on for some interesting breaking news and informative articles.

Addiction Basics

Addiction in Recovery: Alcohol and drugs are not the only addictions looming over US college students heads. This article reveals that cut off from the Internet, social media, cell phones and devices like iPods and TVs, students experience agitation, aggression, slight depression and a sudden overabundance of time.

PRLog: Some basic addiction statistics.  In 2001 almost thirty percent of kids between the ages of twelve and seventeen reported using drugs.


Medical News Today: This article discusses a study which found that Arizona’s smoking ban reduced hospital visits.  Since the 2007 state law took effect, admissions for ailments related to secondhand smoke have declined by as much as 33 percent.

Health Today: A new study found that Americans could suffer 18,000 fewer attacks per year, save millions in health costs if all states banned smoking in restaurants, offices and other public spaces nationwide.

Medical News Today: The medical marijuana boom is always a prevalent topic. According to this article, fourteen states in the US plus the District of Columbia have passed laws intended to give certain ill people legal access to medical marijuana.

Other Drugs

Harm Reduction Journal: This is about a case study examining the closure of a large urban fixed site needle exchange in Canada. The article concludes that closing the fixed site needle exchange had an adverse effect on already vulnerable clients and reduced access to effective comprehensive harm reduction services.

AP News Break: The investment and crackdown of drug war in Mexico have failed to halt drug-related violence, which has killed 23,000 Mexicans in the past three years, or the availability of drugs in the U.S. marketplace, the world’s biggest. Obama said Tuesday that he would send as many as 1,200 National Guard troops back to the US- Mexico boarder to help battle illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

Science Daily: Researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital have produced the first evidence that the opioid blocker extended-release injectable naltrexone (XR-NTX) is able to reduce the brain’s response to cues that may cause alcoholics to relapse.

Ellen and Gladis – Alcoholic and funny

I don’t normally like to make fun of the disease of alcoholism, but sometimes, you just have to let go and enjoy the entertainment. Check out this video from the Ellen DeGeneress show, in which she talks to Gladis, an avid watcher who wrote in. Gladis (the funny alcoholic, I wasn’t saying anything about Ellen in the title) seems to have resigned herself to being an alcoholic and seems to have a lot to say about pretty much everything. Apparently, she’s made many more appearances on the show.

Am I an addict? A simple new test may help us get the answer!

Originally posted on Psychology Today:

One of the biggest problems with addiction is that we never know who is truly an addict. Yes, we have tests and notions, interviews and criteria, but all of those are simply tools we’ve used to get around the problem of not knowing. Well, a recent study by a couple of researchers at Florida State University may help us get a little closer (before you get too excited, read the limitations at the end). My take-home message from this post is familiar: Addiction is a disease, not a question of morality.

Am I An addict? Testing for addiction

One of the major reasons for the push to find the ‘alcoholic gene’ was the hope that, once found, it would let us say, with certainty, who is (and who isn’t) an addict. All those people who simply use drugs and other addictions as an excuse for their horrible behavior would be revealed and all those who truly need help could be identified. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

There is no alcoholic gene. There are a whole bunch of genes that are associated with, and most likely contribute to, the risk of someone becoming an addict. But they vary for different drugs, require some pretty serious testing, and contribute very little (individually) to our ability to categorize people. The same genes that are linked to addiction are also linked to ADHD, anxiety disorders, depression, and on and on…

But wouldn’t it be great if we had a conclusive test? Something that worked to really help us tell the difference between addicts and the rest?

Skin response testing

Electrodermal response modulation (ERM; a fancy name for measuring skin conductance) is a measure of how skin conductance changes in response to predictable versus unpredictable stress.

The connection between addiction and skin response might seem a stretch, but hey, dilated pupils are a sign for sexual attraction so… The idea is that the more prepared the overall system is to deal with predictable stress, the better equipped a person is to handle life stressors. Bad responsivity would mean that the person’s system is not adjusting well to stressors that are predictable, producing too much arousal and discomfort to events they should be prepared for.

So for this study, high ERM good, low ERM bad, got it?

To make a long story short, this recent research shows that low ERM was more common among individuals with addiction than among controls (people with no major mental health issues) and even among individuals with personality disorders.

The good news is that this finding is promising in terms of possible future identification of people who are likely to develop addiction problems. But of course, there are some issues.

Limitations of the study

Since the study used people who were already addicted, it’s impossible for us to know if low ERM exists before addiction develops. If it does, we may be able to identify potential addicts before they become addicted, but if not, it would still be useful to have a test to distinguish current addicts from non-addicts.

Of course, at the moment the test only works by comparing addicted to non-addicted groups – we don’t have norms or cutoff points to tell us on an individual basis who is or isn’t an addict. A lot more research will be required before that would be possible.

This is not the first test that has shown promise in terms of a quick identification test for addiction. There is quite a bit of research showing a relationship between a specific brain wave (called P300) and addiction. the problem is that P300 turned out to be pretty generally associated with what are known as externalizing disorders (like illegal activity, high risk sexual behavior, aggression, etc.). I personally believe that as behavioral addictions (like sex addiction that involves high risk sexual behavior) become more commonly understood, many of those externalizing disorders may be reclassified, making P300 possibly more popular as an addiction measure.

The Bottom Line: So can we tell?

It’s too early to know if ERM will turn out to be a really good marker for addiction, but I’m sure people are hard at work trying to figure that out, so let’s give them some time. Years ago I heard a presentation about people with low variability in heart rate which seemed to suggest something very similar, so I’m hopeful. But to me, there’s a more important take home message:

Once again, this study shows that there are physiological factors to addiction that are far beyond anyone’s actual control. I don’t personally know anyone who can change their skin conductance, and so I’m pretty comfortable saying that addiction is an actual medical condition in so far as it has physical symptoms and some promising treatments.

But then again, I am a scientist…