Any bartender will tell you that alcohol often makes people more aggressive and generally less inhibited. But the power of booze to loosen inhibitions sometimes promotes helpful behavior, says psychologiust Claude M. Steele of the University of Washington in Seattle, turning “one of the most maligned drugs in human history [into] a milk of human kindness.” As pressures increase both to express and to inhibit a social behavior, such as helping someone with a tedious task, several drinks of liquor break down the inhibiting thoughts and generate more responses of a greater intensity, reports Steele in the January JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY. First, he analyzed 34 previous studies of alcohol’s effects on antisocial behaviors such as aggression.
Alcohol increased these behaviors, but the increases were greater and the behaviors more extreme when a response was under strong conflicting pressures and a large amount of alcohol was consumed. He then found that alcohol can increase “helping” behavior also. In two studies using a total of 224 college students, subjects were given either several drinks of vodka or no alcohol. They were then pressured to help an experimenter with a tedious proofreading task. Students inbibing the most alcohol (about four drinks) who were under the highest conflict (the most negative attitudes toward the proofreading task combined with highest percieved importance of the research) volunteered to do significantly more proofreading than subjects receiving less or no alcohol who were under either low or high conflict. Expectations about drinking and the alcoholic “high” did not account for the results, explains Steele.
“Alcohol impairs inhibitory control [of social behavior] in general,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s something to use to become more helpful, but we’ve shown that the same processes that govern its negative effects also govern some positive effects.”