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.

Citations:

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, my self, and the fight to be altruistic

One of the core personality traits that many addicts, including myself, eventually identify in themselves in a strong streak of selfishness. The question is: What do I do with this insight once I’ve gained it?

I’m starting to come up with my own answer and hopefully my solution will help others find their own.

The beginning of my efforts

Since my arrest, incarceration, and rehabilitation for my own problems with drugs, I’ve dedicated my life to the study of addiction. My hope was that through my knowledge, I’d be able to finally figure out what happened to me. As I continued learning, I began seeing that I could offer some real help to others who are still suffering, stuck in their own, or another’s addiction.

That was how All About Addiction, and its parent company, California Treatment Services, came to be. I wanted to share the knowledge I was gaining with others, hoping that like me, they would find relief in understanding the disorder that has so profoundly messed-up their life.

The All About Addiction experiment

When I started out, I knew nothing about the craft of writing an online blog. I called every post a blog, I wrote like I was trying to get another academic paper published, and no one came to read my boring, overreaching, dense stuff.

My first month I barely broke the 5 reader mark – I was discouraged, but soldiered on. Month after month, post after post, I kept writing, editing, rewriting, learning more, and gaining readers. Since that humble beginning, with the help of some great mentors, help from other bloggers, and good old experience, I improved. As of right now, All About Addiction, is read by about 13,000 people monthly and we’re trying to expand our efforts to give actual real-world help to readers with our recent Free Treatment Contest.

Nowadays, I get dozens of emails asking for specific help, letting me know how much people appreciate what I write, and yes, even the occasional online fight with a reader who disagrees with me. I finally feel that what I’m doing is making a real difference in the world. But that’s where I’ve run into a little unexpected snag.

My fight with altruism

One of the greatest gifts I received when I first cleaned up my act was some relief from the constant noise in my head about my relationship with everyone around me. All the people that owed me money, all the people I owed; the fights with my “employees” and the constant struggle to rationalize my life; the girls, the sex, and the constant mistrust, stealing, and betrayal. It was exhausting, and even though I’d found myself broke for the first time in 5 years, I was more relaxed than ever. There’s no doubt that the people I associated with when I was using were, for the most part, not good for me. Being a student allowed me to take a place back in society and be invisible for a little while. But not for long.

It all started up again when I excelled in my Masters program at Cal State Long Beach. All the accolades and praise made me feel like I was somehow special and better than others. Getting into UCLA’s doctoral program despite the incredible odds (thank god they don’t ask about a conviction record) only made things worse. Now, with thousands of people listening to me on a monthly basis and a consistently growing body of work, my big head and ego are back full force.

I wake up in the morning and rush to my laptop to check on my visitor counts and the most recent comments. I do this at least 100 times a day. I’m obsessed. When people fail to flock to a recent post, I feel down and when they come en mass, I am joyous and feel redeemed. I’m no longer relying on drug deals and money to keep me feeling worthy, but the reader count is my new drug. I have a problem.

Once again, my self-worth is tied up in others, and that’s not a safe place for me to be. If I’m relying on you to make me feel worthy, I’m setting myself up for failure. This is especially true because of my perfectionist, obsessive, personality. Nothing is ever good enough and I won’t stop until everything is perfect. Seems like a trap, doesn’t it?

My solution, for now

My solution isn’t going to involve my not writing anymore. I think it’s helping people and I want to help – I just want to remove my own self-perception from the equation. I’m also beginning to realize that my obsessive nature is never going to go away. It, along with my inattention, is going to remain a lifelong challenge that I will have to learn to live with.

This is tied very closely to my struggles with addiction. Every time I think I have it beat, the same tendencies pop-up somewhere else, reminding me that this fight isn’t going to be won easily. I haven’t used meth in over 8 years now and hopefully I never will. Still, the same obsessions, discomforts, and personality traits that kept me using for so long are here, and they’re not going anywhere. And that’s without even mentioning that randomly inserted cravings that can take over my mind at any minute.

So for now, I vow to do my best to write without concern for what others think. I will write, as best I can, to help others through encouragement, tips, and education. The results, any prestige or acknowledgement I may get? Those are out of my hands and none of my concern.