Category: Alcohol

Five studies that help explain why social drinking is so rewarding

David Cameron And Chinese President Xi Jinping Visit Princes Risborough PubBy Christian Jarrett

For millennia, humans have enjoyed using alcohol as a social lubricant. The reasons seem obvious at first. Most of us have had a drink or two that’s put us at ease, helped us lose our inhibitions, lifted our mood. And yet, literally for decades through the last century, psychologists and other scientists struggled to find evidence for what they termed the “tension reduction theory” that proposed alcohol was rewarding because of its relaxing, mood-enhancing effects. In the lab, alcohol often had no effect or even made people feel worse.

A new review in Behaviour Research and Therapy helps make sense of this mismatch between real life and the lab. Too much of the early research presumed alcohol’s effects are straightforward, that if you give a dose of alcohol to a person sat alone in a psych lab, that its pharmacological effects will kick in and make them feel jollier and less anxious.

The reality, as Michael Sayette of the University of Pittsburgh explains in his review, is that alcohol’s rewarding effects interact in complex ways with our thoughts and emotions and the social situations we find ourselves in. To uncover why social drinking is so rewarding, researchers have had to develop more sophisticated, realistic experiments. Here I’ve pulled out five of the key insights from Sayette’s review that help explain why so many of us find alcohol the perfect companion when we’re socialising.

Continue reading “Five studies that help explain why social drinking is so rewarding”

A small alcoholic drink could benefit business negotiations, study finds

It is a tradition in many cultures, especially in East Asia, for business negotiations to be accompanied by drinking alcohol. Motivated in part to wonder why this might be, Pak Hung Au and Jipeng Zhang, at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in China, have tested the effects of a small cup of beer (350ml) on participants’ bargaining behaviour.

The study in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organisation involved 114 people playing a bargaining game in pairs, some of them after a cup of beer, others after non-alcoholic beer (a test of a placebo effect) and some after juice. Each round, each player was allocated a sum of money between $1 to $10 known only to them. Each round they and their partner then had to decide whether to participate with each other or not. If both parties agreed to join together then their initial endowments for that round would be summed and multiplied by 1.2 before being shared equally.

As a pair, these rules meant the participants gained more money the more that they collaborated. However, collaboration was not financially beneficial to individual participants on those rounds in which they had a large initial endowment but their collaborating partner had only a small endowment. Generally what happened is that players opted to collaborate on rounds in which they started out with a small endowment, but chose not to when they had a larger amount. Part of the game involved deducing from any collaboration payouts and other clues how conservatively and individualistically their partner was playing, and responding as they felt appropriate.

In short, the researchers found that more collaboration occurred when both participants in a pair had had a drink of beer compared with juice (those who drank beer had an average blood alcohol concentration level of 0.0406; for reference, outside of Scotland, the UK drink drive limit is 0.08 or 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood). There was little evidence of a placebo effect, and other financial games and measures used in the study suggested the effects on collaboration were not due to any changes in risk aversion, mood or altruism. Instead, the researchers’ analysis suggested that alcohol affected the way that players made inferences about their partner’s negotiating stance based on their collaboration decisions and other clues. “In settings in which skepticism can lead to a breakdown in negotiation, alcohol consumption can make people drop their guard for each others’ actions, thus facilitating reaching an agreement,” they explained.

The researchers warned that of course excessive alcohol consumption is associated with many health risks, and that the consumption of larger amounts of alcohol would inevitable harm business negotiations through its affects on mental performance and aggression. But they said their results do suggest that “consuming a mild to moderate amount of alcoholic drink in business meetings can potentially help smooth the negotiation process”.

Deal or no deal? The effect of alcohol drinking on bargaining

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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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There are four kinds of drunken personality (among students, at least)

New, preliminary evidence suggests that undergrad drinkers fall into four different, colourful types, each with a particular shift in personality when under the influence. The findings could increase our understanding of why some students behave in harmful ways when drunk while others usually don’t.

Rachel Winograd and colleagues at the University of Missouri-Columbia asked 374 student participants to complete a personality test twice, once considering themselves as they normally are, the other time how they behave and feel when drunk. The researchers conducted a cluster analysis on the dataset to find four types of student drinker:

  • Those for whom drinking had less effect on their intellect and conscientiousness than is typical, dubbed Hemingways in tribute to the writer’s reputed imperviousness to alcohol
  • Those who are introverted when sober but highly extraverted and unconscientious when drunk, who experienced the greatest overall personality shift thanks to alcohol, and are named Nutty Professors after the Jerry Lewis character 
  • Those who are very pleasant and harmonious (high agreeableness) when sober, and when drunk retain most of their agreeableness, conscientiousness and intellect; in all, they experience the slightest alcohol related change: the Mary Poppinses
  • Finally, those dubbed Mr Hydes due to their larger decreases in agreeableness, conscientiousness, and intellect when drunk

This last group is of particular interest. Although none of the types were linked to greater units consumed per drinking session, nor with binge drinking, the Mr Hydes were significantly more likely to experience negative alcohol-related consequences, including poorer grades, regrettable sex, or cravings for drink in the morning; this effect was in comparison to the Mary Poppinses, with the other groups falling intermediate. It’s also worth noting the Mr Hyde group had the highest proportion of women (two thirds, with the sample being overall 57 per cent women).

A few limitations to note. Firstly, each participant was also rated by a buddy in the sample, but analysis of their judgments didn’t suggest any clear typology in the way that the self-ratings did. The authors suggest that the shifts they are looking for may be subtle and internal, and overlooked by outsiders looking for stereotypical drunk behaviours, which I find plausible; even so, convergent evidence would have been preferable. The study looked at sober perceptions of drunkenness, so further work using observation of alcohol use in the lab or even the pub would be welcome. And of course, undergrad drinkers are not all drinkers, and older, alcohol-dependent home drinkers may fall into very different dynamics.

Previous research had suggested that alcohol-related personality change is a predictor of alcohol problems, but this research develops this understanding by attributing it to a type of change, rather than simply the quantity of change (as the radical shift of the Nutty Professors was not associated with greater harm). As such, it suggests possible risk factors that can help individuals understand why they are the ones suffering, when all they are doing is drinking like their crew do.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Winograd, R., Steinley, D., & Sher, K. (2015). Searching for Mr. Hyde: A five-factor approach to characterizing “types of drunks” Addiction Research & Theory, 1-8 DOI: 10.3109/16066359.2015.1029920

further reading
Round-up of research on the psychology of being drunk (scroll down for older posts)

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

References to alcohol in UK pop music are on the increase

“My wine is good to me, it helps me pass the time. And my good old buddy whiskey keeps me warmer than the sunshine,” Aloe Blacc – I need a dollar, 2011.

Psychologists have documented a striking increase in references to alcohol and heavy drinking in the lyrics of UK chart music. They warn this could mean that attempts to control the direct advertising of alcohol to young people will be in vain, as pop music is effectively spreading a positive message on the drinks companies’ behalf.

Katherine Hardcastle and her colleagues analysed all songs (611 in total) that reached a top 10 UK chart position in the years 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011. The proportion of songs that referenced alcohol in their lyrics was 5.8, 2.1, 8.1 and 18.5 per cent, respectively across these years.

The researchers also looked to see whether the references to alcohol and drinking carried negative, neutral or positive connotations. References were mixed in 1981; all positive in ’91 (though this was the year with the lowest number of alcohol references); more negative and neutral than positive in 2001; while in 2011, the positive and neutral references (22 songs) far outnumbered the negative references (4).

From Hardcastle et al. 2015

Why are alcohol references on the increase in the British pop charts? Hardcastle and her co-authors think it has to do with the influence of US acts. Alcohol references are even more prevalent in the USA chart (23.7 per cent of songs in 2008) and songs by US acts in the UK chart contained more alcohol references than songs by British acts. References to booze and drinking were highest in Urban music (R&B, hip-hop and rap) – a genre largely originating in the US. “Today’s urban music scene is dominated by US artists such as Jay-Z and Alicia Keys,” the researcher said, “with many artists from the UK music scene attempting to emulate the sounds and styles of their American counterparts.”

This study cannot answer the question of whether mentions of alcohol (especially positive ones) in pop music encourages more alcohol abuse among young listeners. However, the researchers argue there is reason to think it might. They point to the influence of non-conscious priming (ideas can influence our behaviour without us realising it) and past research showing that people drink more when in a bar that’s playing music with alcohol-related lyrics. Moreover, teenagers’ beliefs about what’s “normal” drinking behaviour will likely be influenced by what they hear from the singers they admire.

“A greater understanding of the impacts of alcohol-related popular music is urgently needed,” the researchers concluded.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Hardcastle, K., Hughes, K., Sharples, O., & Bellis, M. (2015). Trends in alcohol portrayal in popular music: A longitudinal analysis of the UK charts Psychology of Music, 43 (3), 321-332 DOI: 10.1177/0305735613500701

further reading
Pop music is getting sadder

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

When do bystanders intervene in barroom brawls?

The hero in martial arts movies usually steps in when a passive victim is picked on by a gang of thugs. However a new study finds that in real life, third parties are most likely to intervene in conflict situations when the incident involves mutual aggression between drunk men.

Michael Parks and his colleagues trained dozens of observers who analysed 860 aggressive incidents across 503 nights in 87 large clubs and bars in Toronto, Canada. Aggression was defined as anything from a verbal insult or unwanted physical contact to a punch or kick. Incidents were twice as likely to involve one-sided aggression as opposed to mutual aggression. The most common incident involved a man making persistent unwanted overtures or physical contact towards a female. Male on male aggression was the next most frequent category. All-female aggression was rare.

Third parties intervened in almost one third of these situations, and they were more than twice as likely to intervene in a non-aggressive way than to be aggressive themselves. Eighty per cent of third parties who got involved were men. Drunk third parties were more likely to be aggressive. Surprisingly perhaps, the most frequent kind of aggressive incident (male on female) was the least likely to provoke third party involvement. One-sided aggression between men also provoked few interventions. Parks and his team think this is probably because such incidents are judged to be non-serious and unlikely to escalate.

This was borne out by data for how the situations unfolded. Serious physical harm and intense aggression rarely arose from one-sided aggression of any kind, including male on female. Serious harm and escalation most often arose out of mutual aggression between men – the situation that provoked the highest rate of third-party involvement, all the more so if the men involved were intoxicated.

Taken together, Parks and his team believe their data show that third parties decide to intervene based on their assessment of the dangerousness of the situation. This fits with social psychology research showing that bystanders intervene more often in emergency situations that they perceive to be more dangerous. An alternative or parallel explanation is that third parties were influenced to intervene based on cultural rules around honour and saving face.

Parks and his team said their results could have practical applications. “Staff training can include awareness of the kinds of situations most likely to elicit aggressive third parties and how to work as a team to prevent their involvement,” they said. “Staff could also be trained to harness the good intentions of non-aggressive third parties.”

The great strength of this research was that it was based on real-life observations. A downside, acknowledged by the researchers, is that we don’t have any direct evidence for the motives of the people who intervened.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Parks MJ, Osgood DW, Felson RB, Wells S, and Graham K (2013). Third party involvement in barroom conflicts. Aggressive behavior, 39 (4), 257-68 PMID: 23494773

–Further reading–
Who gets aggressive at the late-night bar and why?
Bystander research from the Digest archive.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

"Beauty in the eyes of the beer holder" – people who think they’re drunk, think they’re hot

The beer-goggle effect is well-documented – the way that being drunk makes everyone look wonderfully attractive. A new study asks whether the goggles work backwards. Does being drunk affect how we judge our own appeal?

Laurent Bègue and her team asked 19 patrons at a French bar to rate their own attractiveness and to puff into a breathalyser. The two measures correlated – the participants who were more drunk tended to rate themselves as more attractive. But maybe that was nothing to do with the effect of alcohol. Perhaps better-looking people like getting more drunk?

To find out, Bègue and her colleagues conducted a balanced placebo test with 86 Frenchmen. Half drank the equivalent of five to six shots of vodka, and in this group, half were told truthfully the minty lemon drink was alcoholic, whilst the other half were told it was a new, non-alcoholic beverage that tasted like alcohol. The remaining men drank an alcohol-free version of the minty, lemon drink – half of them were told it was alcoholic (alcohol was sprayed on the glass to make this more believable) and half were told truthfully that it was not. After a short break to allow the alcohol to work its effects, they all recorded an advertising message for the fictional beverage company that they’d been told had produced the drink. Right after, they then watched back the film they’d made and rated their own attractiveness.

The take-home finding – participants who thought they were drunk rated themselves as more attractive than did other participants, regardless of whether they’d really had any alcohol or not. In other words, it’s not the chemical content of alcohol that makes us think we’re more attractive, it’s merely the belief that we’re drunk that inflates our self-perceived appeal (up to a point – in fact the average self-judged attractiveness rating for the group who though they’d had alcohol still wasn’t that high).

Maybe people who thought they were drunk really were more attractive than those who thought they were sober? A panel of 22 university students also watched the videos and rated the attractiveness of the men. There was no evidence in their ratings to suggest the participants who thought they were drunk were more attractive, so the inflated self-perceived appeal of these men was illusory.

Why should thinking we’re drunk have this effect? The researchers believe it must have to do with implicit beliefs people hold about alcohol. If people associate alcohol and attractiveness in their minds, then thinking they’ve had alcohol could make thoughts about their own attractiveness more accessible. This would fit with past research showing that drinkers in films are usually portrayed as more attractive than non-drinkers.

Coincidentally, another study has just been published that asked a group of 100 young men to answer questions about how they think a typical young man’s personality is affected by being drunk. They then said how they thought being drunk affected their own personality. There was a lot of agreement about the effect of being drunk on a typical young man – reduced conscientiousness, increased neuroticism, elevated extraversion, reduced openness and reduced agreeableness. When the young men then said how alcohol changed their own personalities, they again highlighted reduced conscientiousness, increased neuroticism and extraversion, but they thought their own agreeableness was unchanged and that they were actually more open to experience when intoxicated.

So, not only do people who think they’re drunk find themselves more attractive, people (well, young men) also think that, whereas you are less agreeable when you’re drunk, their own personality when drunk remains as likeable and friendly as ever!
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 ResearchBlogging.orgUusberg, Andero, Mõttus, René, Kreegipuu, Kairi, and Allik, Jüri (2012). Beliefs about the effects of alcohol on the personality of oneself and others Journal of Individual Differences DOI: 10.1027/1614-0001/a000084


Laurent Bègue, Brad J. Bushman, Oulmann Zerhouni, Baptiste Subra, and Medhi Ourabah (2012). ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder’: People who think they are drunk also think they are attractive. British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.2012.02114.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

My drunkenness means you did it deliberately

With our brains gently soaked in alcohol we’re generally more sociable and relaxed – it’s a sedative after all. So why do drunk people seem so prone to aggravation and argument? One reason, say Laurent Bègue and colleagues, is that alcohol exacerbates the ‘intentionality bias‘, our natural tendency to assume that other people intended their actions. So when that guy jolts you at the bar and you’re drunk, you’re more likely to think he did it on purpose.

Bègue’s team recruited 92 men (aged 20 to 46) to take part in what they were told was a taste-testing study. They were given three glasses to taste, each containing a cocktail of grapefruit and grenadine cordial, mint and lemon concentrate. For half the participants, the drinks also contained alcohol – approximately the same amount found in five to six shots of vodka. To control for expectancy effects, half the participants with the alcoholic drinks and half the non-alcohol participants were told the drinks were alcoholic. Next, the participants spent 20 to 30 minutes on filler tasks, in keeping with the cover story that this was a taste-test study, and to allow the alcohol to kick-in. Finally and most importantly, the participants read 50 sentences about various actions (e.g. ‘He deleted the email’) and gave their verdict on whether the actions were intentional or not.

The intoxicated and sober men alike said that obviously intentionally actions (e.g. ‘she looked for her keys’) were intentional, and that blatantly unintentional actions (e.g. ‘she caught a cold’) were unintentional. But crucially, when it came to more ambiguous actions, like the email deletion example, the intoxicated men were significantly more likely (43 per cent) than the sober men (36 per cent) to say the action was intentional. Whether participants were told they’d had alcohol or not made no difference.

Why should alcohol have this effect? Bègue’s team think that it takes cognitive effort and control to overcome the intentionality bias, especially so as to take in all the information necessary to consider alternative explanations. Alcohol’s well-known disinhibitory and myopic (the ‘narrowing of attention’) effects would clearly undermine these faculties.

‘In summary,’ the researchers concluded, ‘alcohol magnifies the intentionality bias. Napoleon said, “There is no such thing as accident.” Our findings suggest that drunk people are more likely to believe Napoleon’s statement than are sober people.’
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ResearchBlogging.orgBegue, L., Bushman, B., Giancola, P., Subra, B., and Rosset, E. (2010). “There Is No Such Thing as an Accident,” Especially When People Are Drunk. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (10), 1301-1304 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210383044

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

How good are we at estimating other people’s drunkenness?

Sloshed, trollied, hammered, plastered. We’ve done a sterling job of inventing words for the inebriated state, but when it comes to judging from their behaviour how much a person has drunk, we could do (a lot) better. That’s according to a review of the literature by US psychologist Steve Rubenzer.

We all have our trusted indices for judging other people’s drunkenness. Perhaps it’s when the eyeballs start floating about as if under the control of a clumsy puppeteer. Or maybe the effusive ‘you know I love you’ delivered with a trickle of dribble. However, the vast majority of studies find that lay people, police officers and bartenders are in fact hopeless at distinguishing a drunk person from a sober one, at least at moderate levels of intoxication. To take just one example, after watching drunk and sober people being interviewed and negotiating a stair case, bartenders rated them as slightly, moderately or very drunk with an accuracy of just 25 per cent.

It’s a similar story when participants are equipped with more structured means of detecting drunkenness. One 1958 study, for example, found no relation between doctors’ assessments of people’s intoxication (based on pulse rate, general appearance, gait and mental status) and the subsequent performance of those people on a driving course.

Rubenzer also looked at the evidence for specific indicators of intoxication. Alcohol causes reddening of the eyes, the literature shows, but the association between intoxication level and onset or amount of redness is unreliable. Another indicator is smell. The more a person has drunk, the more likely that their breath will be judged by observers to smell of alcohol. However, this indicator is hampered by the lack of a scientific explanation (alcohol has no odour), not to mention the risk of contamination by food smells. Speech slowing and slurring is another sign of intoxication but people are only modestly accurate at using this as a measure. Predictably enough, impaired walking, the last of the specific indicators, tends to increase the more a person has drunk but it only becomes reliable at very high intoxication levels.

The review finishes by looking at established ‘sobriety tests’: Nystagmus (jerky eye movements when following a moving target); the Romberg (whether a person sways or falls when they stand, eyes closed, with their feet together, arms at their sides); the Finger to Nose; the Finger to Finger; Saying the Alphabet; and the Hand Pat (alternating between clapping with the palms and backs of hands). In summary, performance on these tests does tend to decline as alcohol intake increases but the evidence for this at lower levels of intoxication is mixed and false positives (sober people categorised as drunk) are a frequent occurrence.

‘…[J]udging low to moderate levels of intoxication in strangers is a difficult task,’ Rubenzer concludes. ‘A variety of professions that might be expected to show substantial skill assessing intoxication do not. [And] no behavioural or physical sign has emerged that is consistently related to a specific level of blood alcohol concentration level without large variation among individuals, with the possible exception of nystagmus.’
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ResearchBlogging.orgRubenzer, S. (2010). Judging intoxication. Behavioral Sciences & the Law DOI: 10.1002/bsl.935

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

What’s the link between left-handedness and drinking behaviour?

Back in the 70’s, psychologist Paul Bakan published a short research report in which he noted that among 47 inpatients on an alcoholism ward, 7 were left-handed – more than you’d expect based on the approximate 10-per cent prevalence of left-handedness in the general population. Bakan described his observation as ‘incidental’ but according to Kevin Denny, the idea of an alcoholism-handedness link has proven sticky, with some commentators suggesting the stress of being left-handed in a right-handed world is to blame.

Several studies through the years have attempted to replicate the left-handed-alcoholism link but most have relied on small samples and any way the results have been inconsistent. Denny’s contribution is an examination of data from the SHARE survey involving over 25,000 people from 12 countries. Left-handers aren’t more prone to risky drinking, Denny finds, but on average they do drink more often.

Denny made his finding after categorising survey participants based on their self-reports as either heavy drinkers (those who drink ‘almost everyday’ or ‘5 or 6 days a week’) or light drinkers (less than once a month or not at all for last six months). There was no evidence that handedness was related to excessive drinking, but left-handers were significantly less likely to be in the light drinker category than right-handers, suggesting that, on average, a left-hander is more likely than a right-hander to drink at moderate levels.

‘There is no evidence that handedness predicts risky drinking,’ Denny wrote. ‘Hence, the results do not support the idea that excess drinking may be a consequence either of atypical lateralisation of the brain or due to the social stresses that arise from left-handers being a minority group.’

Denny acknowledges his study has limitations – all participants in the SHARE survey are over 50, so it’s possible his findings don’t generalise to younger people. Related to this, it’s possible that some heavy-drinking left-handers died before the age of 50, although their numbers are likely to be small. Another potential shortcoming is that some participants categorised as non-drinkers may have been problem-drinkers in recovery.
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ResearchBlogging.orgDenny, K. (2010). Handedness and drinking behaviour. British Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1348/135910710X515705

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Why you really should avoid upsetting the big, drunk guy

There are some obvious practical reasons why you might want to avoid provoking the big, drunk guy in the bar. After all, he’s bigger than you. However, according to a new study, there’s another more psychological reason to be wary – heavier men are, on average, more likely to be aggressive when drunk than are lighter men. Nathan DeWall and colleagues say their finding is consistent with evolutionary theory and research on embodied cognition.

Over five hundred women (average weight 149 lb) and men (average weight 183 lb), aged 21 to 35, consumed either an alcoholic beverage or a placebo drink before taking part in a reaction time contest. The winner of each round had the opportunity to inflict an electric shock on their opponent. Their choices of how strong and long a shock to inflict was the measure of aggression. Unbeknown to the participants, their opponent was fictitious and the game was fixed so that they won fifty per cent of the rounds.

The key finding was that among the male participants only, alcohol interacted with body weight to predict aggression. That is, heavier men who had an alcoholic drink tended to be more aggressive than those who had an alcohol-free placebo drink. By contrast, having an alcoholic vs. placebo drink made little difference to the aggression of lighter men.

Another way of looking at the results was that, among men who had the alcoholic drink, those who were heavier tended to be more aggressive. For the female participants, their weight bore no relation to their aggressiveness. These same findings were replicated in a second study with a further 327 men and women.

It makes sense in terms of evolutionary theory that bigger men should be more prone to aggression, the researchers said, because ‘they’re more able than weaker men to inflict costs on others in conflict situations.’ The same isn’t true for women because even those who are larger will usually be smaller and weaker than potential male adversaries.

An association between weight and aggression is also predicted by embodied cognition, the researchers said. This is the idea that the way we think about abstract concepts is rooted in physical metaphors. One example is that we think about importance in terms of weight, thus leading heavier people to feel more important and entitled to special treatment.

Consistent with both these theoretical arguments, past research has indeed found that physical size is related to aggression. However, DeWall’s team said their new study is the first to show that weight is a predictor of alcohol-induced increases in aggression. ‘It seems that alcohol reduced the inhibition for heavy men to “throw their weight around” and intimidate others by behaving aggressively,’ they said.
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ResearchBlogging.orgDeWall, C., Bushman, B., Giancola, P., & Webster, G. (2010). The big, the bad, and the boozed-up: Weight moderates the effect of alcohol on aggression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (4), 619-623 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.02.008

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.