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Just Talking About Alcohol May Increase Aggressiveness

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” This age-old truism may not be applicable to alcohol. A team of clinicians from the UK and the US sought to understand the relationship between simply talking about alcohol (using alcohol related terms such as “whiskey,” “wine,” “beer,” etc.) and aggression in individuals.* The authors looked to prove that simply using alcohol related terms would produce similar extreme social behavior that actual alcohol consumption does. Participants were divided into those who were “primed” with alcohol related terms and those who were not (using terms such as “milk,” “juice,” etc.)

The research was conducted as two different experiments showing some very interesting results. The experiments showed that those exposed to alcohol related words became more aggressive when they were exposed to ambiguous provocation – in other words when they were faced with an indirect insult. This aggression was short lived however, lasting only about 15 minutes. The authors posit the idea that these cues activate our long-term memory banks. It is interesting to note that only when there was an ambiguous insult, was there a noticeable behavioral difference between those who had or had not heard alcohol related terms. Direct insults showed increased aggression no matter what cues were offered beforehand.

Our Take: This research is truly stunning as it may explain some extreme behavior in social settings where alcohol is not necessarily consumed, but is nearby or a topic of conversation. One could assume that at a sports event, for example, when an individual’s team is losing, or the referee makes a bad call (indirect insults) aggressive behaviors could be significantly increased for a time, even in the absence of alcohol. This is also helpful for recovering addicts who may find themselves at increased risk of relapse when alcohol is or has been discussed while an indirect insult is being leveled.

This research may, in future, be very helpful in predicting behavior and developing effective methods to avoid situations that may increase aggressiveness.

* Pedersen, W.C., Vasquez, E.A., Bartholow, B.D., Grosvenor, M., & Truong, A. (in press).  Are you insulting me?  Exposure to alcohol primes increases aggression following ambiguous provocation.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.