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.

Two Million Dollars a piece – The cost of drug use and violence

The average cost to society of a lifelong criminal = About $2 million

I’ll get into more of this in later posts (I already talked about the cost of addiction prevention versus treatment versus enforcement), but if that cost of drug use and violence doesn’t cry out for a better application of money to prevention and addiction treatment, I don’t know what does.

At that cost, even if a treatment method costs $10k per client, it only needs to work for 1 out of 200 people to break even, and benefit society while doing so. In reality, our success rates are much higher than .5% (1/200) and closer to 15%-25%. When you take into account the fact that average cost of a month in addiction treatment (residential, outpatient treatment is much cheaper) is indeed about $7000-$10,000, it seems silly not to avoid the cost of crime by greatly reducing drug use, and hence criminal behavior.

NIDA, the government’s top agency for drug and alcohol abuse research recommends three months of treatment, but even then, success rates as low as 2% would leave us with a profit by providing treatment. Screw it, even a whole year of treatment would save us money if it succeeded but I can tell you that funding for that kind of addiction treatment length is almost non-existent, especially when compared to the actual need.

So with success rates about 20 to 30 times higher than our break-even point, we would literally benefit, and I’m talking financially, from helping people with treatment as expensive as $100,000 or more (as long as it worked). One of the things I’ve learned in all my work has been that while some individuals are actually interested in helping people, yes, even if they’ve been dirty drug addicts who have commited crimes, almost everyone cares about money. So forget for a second about all the social justice arguments to be made for helping addicts and think about the cost savings to our society… It makes sense.

True, true, not all drug users who would enter treatment would become lifelong offender, but if you’re still keeping tabs, even if only 1/20 or so do, we’re more than breaking even here. In fact, with our prison populations exploding as more and more drug users enter the system, I bet we’re in for some real savings.


Dodge, K. A. (2008) Framing public policy and prevention of chronic violence in American youths. America Psychologist, 63, 573-590.

About Addiction: Drug Violence, Brain Chemistry, and Addiction

We’re back again for another round of research and news about addiction. Violence, eating disorders, and why running makes you feel so good are on the menu this week.

Drug Violence and Misuse

Associated Press– Drug violence has been an ongoing problem in numerous countries around the world for some time. Drug violence in Mexico is particularly bad, as many as 28,000 people have been killed since 2006 alone. Due to the increasing amount of drug deaths and the violence that drug cartels have brought about, Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon has considered legalizing drugs in order to prevent any more deaths in the future.

Drugs (journal) – Laxatives are not one of the common drugs that people think about when they think of drug abuse. But laxative abuse is a common practice among: those with eating disorders, middle ages individuals who use laxatives to prevent constipation and end up over using the drug, athletes, and laxative abusers who tend to think they have a factitious disorder

Mixing Alcohol and Medications

Addiction Inbox– Everyone should know that mixing alcohol with medications is a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean that everyone follows this rule – with approximately 70% of the populations consuming alcohol, taking drugs while drinking is almost inevitable. Read about the many reasons why it’s still a really bad idea.

Physiological aspect to addiction

NeuroKuz– While the “runner’s high” was thought to be created by an internal release of natural opioids known as “endorphins,” it seems that cannabinoids, which work on the same receptors as THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), are responsible for the effect.

Addiction Training

Addiction Inbox– The topic of addiction is often glossed over in medical school and in many instances the doctors blame the person for their addiction problem instead of attempting to intervene. Addiction training is so poor that 90% of doctors misdiagnose or cannot identify addiction when the signs and symptoms are clearly displayed.

Intervene – Addiction is no easy thing to deal with – Even getting a person to admit that they are an addict is a personal struggle. Intervene tells a brief summary one individual’s story of dealing with addiction and how he struggled to try to live a positive and normal life while regretting all the pain he caused during his active addiction.

About Addiction: Drug use and crime, increasing marijuana use, cravings and brain function

Check out the newest links about addiction. Leave us your feedback!

Drug use & Crime

Huffington Post: Over 5,000 lives were taken in drug related crimes in Mexico in the past year. Drug trade related violence is linked directly to the rising levels of drug use worldwide.

Marijuana use

Bloomberg Businessweek: For the first time since 2002, the number of Americans smoking marijuana rose . Around 12.5% (39 million people) between the ages of 15 and 64, smoked marijuana in 2008, up from 12.3 percent the year before. Medical Marijuana anyone?

Drinking alcohol, and smoking cigarettes

Science Daily: Drunkenness increases the risk for violent behavior, but only for individuals with a strong inclination to suppress anger. Seems similar to my thesis findings.

Health Day: American teenage girls seem more receptive to drinking alcohol and taking other drugs than in earlier years. Teenage girls reach more than ever for drugs and booze to help them emotionally.

Health Day: There seems to be a connection between parents who smoke and children who weigh more or misbehave more than other children. This speaks to the environmental, as well as genetic, influences on behavior and health.

Cesar Fax: The percentage of high school students who for the first time tried alcohol or cigarettes before the age of 13 has decreased over the last ten years. In 1999, around one-third of high school students had reported drinking alcohol and one-fourth reported smoking a cigarette for the first time before age 13.

Health Day: Smoking may cause certain genetic mutations in older women, and therefore boost the risk of colon cancer in that population. In the general population, there is not much of connection between smoking and a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

Cravings and Brain function in addiction

Science Daily: Recovering addicts who avoid coping with stress succumb easily to substance use cravings, making them more likely to relapse during recovery.

Science Daily: Becoming addicted could result from a persistent impairment of synaptic plasticity in the brain. There exists a correlation between synaptic plasticity and the transition to addiction.

Drug use and partner violence – My MA thesis has finally been published!!

My thesis manuscript has finally be published in a journal called The Open Addiction Journal. You can access the article there or at wepapers, where I’ve published the pdf file of it. Either way, access to the article is free!!

The paper deals with the relationship between violence (specifically partner violence or spousal abuse) and drugs. While research findings have generally supported the notion that drug use leads to violence, I was skeptical, especially having known hundreds of drug users that were far from violent and/or aggressive.  Those who did tend to get into fights and display aggression behaved that way regardless of any drug ingestion. After two long years of data collection and analysis, my work supported my initial hypothesis – An aggressive personality (that we measured using 5 different instruments) was far more predictive of violent behavior than any drug use. In fact, the only drug that predicted any significant change in violent behavior was methamphetamine.

The work was written for academics, but I think that all my readers could benefit from learning about this relationship.

Hope you glance at it – three years of work…

Aggression-related effects of alcohol – Irritability, brain function, and violence

Irritability is an important factor determining alcohol-related aggression among men, according to a recent study.

bar fightThe study of 313 men and women tested people’s likelihood of giving shocks to a fictitious opponent after drinking either alcohol or a placebo drink. Researchers used measures of brain functioning and irritability taken before drinking to test their relationship to the participants’ aggressive behavior.

It seems that for men, but not for women, irritability was an important factor in the relationship between overall brain functioning and aggression. It’s important to note here that irritability is considered an overall personality trait, and not a momentary sort of thing. The more irritable the intoxicated men were, the stronger the effect of the alcohol’s brain dysregulation was on aggression.

The effect of brain dysregulation (known as cognitive dysregulation in the literature) and of irritability alone on alcohol-related aggression had been studied before. However, this study allowed researchers to assess the relationship between all three variables.

Among all the effects of alcohol, this sure helps explain bar fights…

Proposition 36 – California’s Addiction Treatment Under Attack!!!

If you’re not from CA, you may not know about proposition 36.

It’s a law, passed by voters in 2000, that mandates treatment, not incarceration, for people arrested on drug charges. Defendants can chose whether to accept it or not if they’re eligible, and before I get angry responses from my “red-state” readers, only non-violent, possession only arrests are eligible for Prop 36 participation (I, for instance, was NOT eligible).

Well, like so much else, Prop 36 is on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proverbial chopping block. California is in a state of fiscal emergency, and addiction treatment is one of the first things to seem like an unnecessary public welfare program.

But, if funding for Prop 36 disappears, many California counties are going to be left in trouble.

This is why:

  • Over 40,000 people are referred for assessment under proposition 36 every year. If funding disappears, they will all, by law, still have the right to request treatment, there will just be no funding for it.
  • Of the total people referred, more than 80% get assessed for treatment, and more than 80% of those actually get into treatment. That’s 31,772 people that got treatment for their addiction instead of sitting in a jail cell in 2007.
  • With the average cost of incarceration exceeding $30,000 removing funding for the program will either break CA law or break the banks of the counties and the state.

I understand the need to be fiscally responsible in a crisis like the one we’re facing, but as it stands, Prop 36 is the law, and treatment helps more people stay out of jail than incarceration.

If funding stops, the state is going to shoot itself in the foot, having to pay for these people through another program, taking the money away from services  that were deemed important enough to stay on the books.