Wednesday, 29 September 2010

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.

10 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:28 am

    Isn't the intentionality bias related to the hidden agency bias which, evolutionarily speaking, is on average beneficial in a competitive environment?
    And would alcohol also boost the hidden agency bias? :-D

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  2. So the drunk men were 19% more likely to exhibit intentionality bias? It doesn't exactly seem like a massive effect, does it?

    Interesting follow up studies could look at whether the severity of alcohol's implication in this bias is dependent on the underlying bias exhibited by the individual i.e. would a person who exhibits unusually strong intentionality bias anyway become significantly more suspicious of others' intentionalities than a person who doesn't usually exhibit strong intentionality bias? So could we see an exponential increase in effect with progressively higher base intentionality bias?

    Another potential explanation for this effect could be that everyone exhibits the same bias, but alcohol just makes us likelier to report/act on it.

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  3. "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?"

    "Bègue's team recruited 92 men (aged 20 to 46) to take part ... "

    Okay, so who is that "our" and "people" really talking about?

    Way to overgeneralize results, guys. I know this is all whiny and PC and garbage like that, but maybe they shouldn't study less than half the species and then throw the pronouns around quite so casually.

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  4. I guess that's why there are so many bar fights over nothing...

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  5. Anonymous8:51 am

    I wonder about the ethics of not telling half the 'alcohol' group that their drink has the equivalent of 5/6 shots of vodka in it!

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  6. My take is that alcohol just brings out the devil in those who hide the bad guy inside them. On the other hand it brings out the heroes in those who, under normal circumstances, are too shy to stand out.

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  7. Anonymous6:02 pm

    I agree with LC Teh.

    Once I saw a t-shirt that said: "Instant @$$-hole, just add alcohol"

    and almost bought it for my alcoholic uncle, but I didn't have the guts. He thought he was "nicer" when he had been drinking. But really, he was just more comfortable being the a-h he really was.

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  8. Anonymous11:03 am

    This is the most retarded design ever. And yes, getting a group of people drunk in a laboratory and reading questions to them will totally tell us about real-life behaviours.

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  9. Anonymous5:42 pm

    no good

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  10. Anonymous12:36 am

    A difference of 7% in a sample of 92 people? Real conclusive...

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