What happens when you get drunk?

by on February 14, 2010 at 7:13 am in Food and Drink, Science | Permalink

Malcolm Gladwell presents a hypothesis which I hadn't heard before:

Put a stressed-out drinker in front of an exciting football game and he’ll forget his troubles. But put him in a quiet bar somewhere, all by himself and he’ll grow mare anxious. Alcohol's principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental field of vision.

It causes, “a state of short- sightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion." Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the in the background disappear. That’s why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check. Drinking relaxes the man watching football because the game is front and center, and alcohol makes every secondary consideration fade away. But in a quiet bar his problems are front and center and every potentially comforting or mitigating thought recedes. Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia.

The gated link is here.  One of the associated researchers with this point — Claude Steele — is the twin brother of Shelby Steele.  Robert Josephs has done some of the related work with Steele.  You can buy their core piece for $11.95.  Here is an interesting piece by Steele on how "drinking away your troubles" works.  Here is a very useful survey piece by Josephs (and others) on the "alcohol myopia" hypothesis.

Here is an hour-long interview with Steele (which I have not heard).  Steele is now Provost at Columbia University.

Jim Henley February 14, 2010 at 9:47 am

I’m a teatotaller, so this is spectator-sport stuff, but one thought that strikes me is that this is an alternative explanation for the greater tendency toward alcoholism among people with ADD. The standard explanation centers around the documented link between ADD and Reward Deficiency Syndrome, and that makes sense too, but I could totally see self-medicating on something that narrows one’s focus to what’s immediately in front of one.

Bock February 14, 2010 at 11:19 am

Once again, Gladwell is clueless. I wonder if Gladwell has ever drank a beer in a bar. Drunkennes can cause long-sightedness and nostalgia. Myopia would be a better description of the effects of marijuana.

Think about it. If the “Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the background disappear” then why are drunk drivers a problem? Because it is just the reverse: the drunk problem driver is lost in background emotional thought and not paying attention to the foreground.

babar February 14, 2010 at 12:49 pm

are you somehow professionally bound to take malcolm gladwell seriously?

Lord February 14, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Does that mean soberness is not inhibition, soberness is distraction (not of a focused variety but of an unfocused scattered one)? Focus is less pejorative than myopic, and I don’t think short sighted and reflective are consistent.

Yancey Ward February 14, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Babar,

Maybe Tyler was drunk.

Bock February 14, 2010 at 4:12 pm

“Just because Malcolm Gladwell believes it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

Yeah, OK. But seems like you’d trust the drunks themselves to have more insight on this one.

Nick February 14, 2010 at 6:54 pm

XKCD: The Ballmer Peak. http://xkcd.com/323/

“…somehow a BAC between 0.129% and 0.138% confers superhuman programming ability.”

Bill February 14, 2010 at 8:41 pm

This explains why my I think my best comments to this blog are made when I have a slight buzz from a scotch in the evening.

And, why, in the morning, the comments do not look so great.

And, why others must be permanantly buzzed.

Bock February 15, 2010 at 1:31 am

yeah OK. unlike Sailer with his pretentious bs, I get drunk every night and am in fact very loaded right now.

Gladwell does make interesting and valid commentary on drinking in different cultures. But the comment in Tyler’s quote above is more than retarded. Not as retarded as the Sailer fantasy of imagining himself Nabakov but nevertheless retarded.

Drunkeness telescopes time in the sense the long ago past present and future run together. the lonely among us, including me, are attracted to alcohol for that very reason. i am no longer lodged in the present.

Gladwell doesnt know shit albout drinking and as a drunk i have qualms with him presenting himself as an authority on the subject.

Jim Henley February 15, 2010 at 8:45 am

Think about it. If the “Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the background disappear” then why are drunk drivers a problem?

I think this only works as a refutation if alcohol only has the single cognitive effect Gladwell focuses on. If it also has other effects, including inflating confidence while impairing physical reflexes, which it seems to, then alcohol is still a problem for drivers. By analogy, Shakespeare joked about how alcohol makes men hornier but also makes it less likely that they can get it up. It doesn’t do to say that because alcohol makes it harder for men to maintain an erection it can’t possibly increase sexual arousal.

Ben Casnocha February 15, 2010 at 9:19 pm

This is one of the funniest comments thread I’ve read in awhile.

Billb February 17, 2010 at 9:41 am

I rarely grow anxious about female horses :) when drinking alone but I do forget my troubles for a while (drunk or sober) when presented with an exciting distraction.

the rugbyologist February 19, 2010 at 6:22 am

Why is it necessary to qualify one’s drinking status in order to have a comment on this topic taken seriously? Do we require medical researchers to take the drugs they are testing? Self-observation is not a strong trait for humans. This seems to be related to the fallacy in alternative medicine circles that you “can’t knock it until you try it.”

That being said, Malcolm Gladwell’s opinion is greatly over-valued.

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