Further Exploration of Alcohol's Link to Aggression
> 7/20/2007 2:14:12 PM

The barroom brawl is a staple of action movies. Alcohol coats everything like gun powder, one fight breaks out, and then BOOM, the whole room is fighting. Glasses break, drunkards wield chairs like mad lion tamers, and invariably a body goes flying out the window. The relationship between alcohol and aggression is not just a Hollywood invention. The U.S. Bureau of Justice reported that when it comes to violent assault, 2/3 of relationship-partner perpetrators were inebriated, as were 1/3 of stranger-assailants.

One theory for this high correlation is the attention-allocation model, which Steele and Joseph posited in 1990. This model works on the assumption that alcohol narrows the beam of attention so that drinkers only have the resources available to focus on the most obvious stimuli in any stressful situation. This could precipitate a fight if the all of the subtle conciliatory cues are ignored in favor of focusing on large aggressive signs. If someone steps on your toe, it is a lot less taxing to process that pain than the many small hand and eye movements that signify that an apology is genuine.

The attention-allocation model makes sense, but models cannot be relied upon to explain the world until they are subjected to systematic experimentation. Doctors Peter Giancola and Michelle Corman from the University of Kentucky filled this need by setting up an experiment to measure aggression from inebriates under equal stress but varying levels of distraction. Subjects competed in a game with an imaginary opponent. The stakes were high because a loss in the game put one at the mercy of whatever level of electrical shock the opponent chose to administer. Predictably, inebriated participants chose to give harsher shocks on average than sober participants.

While drinking did increase aggression in the control case, intoxicated subjects distracted by a moderately difficult memory task were actually less aggressive than the sober group. This alone does not prove that attention deficit is the key to alcohol aggression because the distraction could merely be preventing the expression of a still simmering aggression.

There is an additional finding that might throw some doubt on the attention-allocation model. Giancola and Corman found that there was no lessening of aggression if the distraction was very small or very large. Other coverage of this study glosses over this variable outcome, but it may undermine the hypothesis. If the attention model is correct in assuming that aggressive and conciliatory cues require different levels of attention, then it would be logical for a moderate amount of distraction to create the most aggression. Higher levels should (under the model) make it impossible to focus on even aggressive cues and so correct the processing imbalance.

Despite the rash claims of several other news sources, the results of this study are certainly not conclusive enough to prove the validity of the attention-allocation model. There is one good piece of advice that you can take away though: Next time you feel a bar brawl coming on, start a (mildly distracting) sing along.

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