BBC Magazine published online a couple of weeks ago an interesting piece on cultural anthropology as it relates to drinking patterns, entitled Viewpoint: Is the Alcohol Message All Wrong?. While the article itself I found compelling on its on, the way in which it was attacked in the voluminous number of comments is at least as interesting, too.
It was written by Kate Fox, a co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC). As for Fox’s ideas, she begins with the media-driven perception that Britain is “a nation of loutish binge-drinkers – that [they] drink too much, too young, too fast – and that it makes [them] violent, promiscuous, anti-social and generally obnoxious.” She suggests that those very perceptions are deeply believed among people living there, but that they are wrong.
In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, “Oi, what you lookin’ at?” and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, “Hey babe, fancy a shag?” and start groping each other.
The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol.
There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink alcohol. There are some societies (such as the UK, the US, Australia and parts of Scandinavia) that anthropologists call “ambivalent” drinking-cultures, where drinking is associated with disinhibition, aggression, promiscuity, violence and anti-social behaviour.
There are other societies (such as Latin and Mediterranean cultures in particular, but in fact the vast majority of cultures), where drinking is not associated with these undesirable behaviours — cultures where alcohol is just a morally neutral, normal, integral part of ordinary, everyday life — about on a par with, say, coffee or tea. These are known as “integrated” drinking cultures.”
Seems reasonable enough, almost common sense really. And it’s certainly consistent with my own personal experience. Some people are bad drunks, they use the idea that alcohol will make them act badly to act badly. I’ve seem many examples of such people growing up and through the present. But they’re the minority. I’ve also seen countess people who don’t believe that drinking alcohol will alter their moral compass in the least, and for those people — easily the vast majority of people I know — it doesn’t. The effects of alcohol in such people are largely benign. They don’t don’t turn into assholes. They may get more chatty, more open, more sleepy perhaps; but they don’t become “violent, promiscuous, anti-social and generally obnoxious.”
Fox goes on to suggest that there’s little difference in the amount of alcohol consumed, as it makes little difference at all. What matters is the cultural norm, the attitudes of the society that, at least in part, dictate the consequent behavior. And she says there are numerous studies that prove just that. These “experiments show that when people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol” even if given placebos. She continues:
The British and other ambivalent drinking cultures believe that alcohol is a disinhibitor, and specifically that it makes people amorous or aggressive, so when in these experiments we are given what we think are alcoholic drinks – but are in fact non-alcoholic “placebos” – we shed our inhibitions.
We become more outspoken, more physically demonstrative, more flirtatious, and, given enough provocation, some (young males in particular) become aggressive. Quite specifically, those who most strongly believe that alcohol causes aggression are the most likely to become aggressive when they think that they have consumed alcohol.
Our beliefs about the effects of alcohol act as self-fulfilling prophecies — if you firmly believe and expect that booze will make you aggressive, then it will do exactly that. In fact, you will be able to get roaring drunk on a non-alcoholic placebo.
And our erroneous beliefs provide the perfect excuse for anti-social behaviour. If alcohol “causes” bad behaviour, then you are not responsible for your bad behaviour. You can blame the booze — “it was the drink talking”, “I was not myself” and so on.
She then explains that it may be our attitudes toward alcohol and what it does to us, or what we believe it allows us to do, that we should focus on changing. If the people who use alcohol as an excuse to act badly instead acted like the rest of us and believed otherwise, there might be less bad drunks. That doesn’t sound too radical to me, but judging from the 1000+ comments made in just 48 hours after the article was posted, you’d think she was suggesting we kill puppies and children.
Many of the commenters complain that the author, Kate Fox, is a shill for the alcohol industry because her organization, the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) receives funding from companies who sell alcohol. And that does appear to be the case, although the total funds they receive appear to be from a wide variety of sources, many of which (in fact it would appear a majority) are not alcohol companies. Their funding page does include Diageo, Greene King and the Wine Action Trade Group. But those three are the only ones among 56 donors listed, some of which are very big companies indeed. SIRC’s stated mission is “SIRC is a non-profit organisation that conducts research and consultancy across a wide range of topics, including on-going monitoring and analysis of social trends and related issues.” And given the wide and varied sponsors, it would appear that they’re not exactly in the pocket of big alcohol, as their critics seem to insist.
The main charge lobbied at them is that the British Medical Journal (BMJ) attacked them in a study entitled “how seriously should journalists take an attack from an organisation that is so closely linked to the drinks industry?” But that appears to be in response to SIRC criticizing journalists for publishing stories on health scares so in a sense it seems the BMJ was responding to being criticized by criticizing them. Most commenters seem to believe that the BMJ, and “academic journals” in general, are unassailable, which I’ve found is hardly the case. They’re as open to misuse as anything or anybody. My point is that while it can be important to look at who’s behind any study (and I do it all the time) I find that it’s done far more routinely when it’s a business interest than an anti-alcohol group. If this was an anti-alcohol piece, the media would be falling all over itself in acceptance of it as fact, despite that what comes out of anti-aclohol groups is every bit as much self-serving propaganda as what they’re accusing SIRC of, and without any actual proof, either; just character assassination.
The vitriol in the more than 1,000 comments is staggering, and just the number of comments removed for violating their house rules — language presumably — is higher than I think I’ve ever seen. There’s so many that are just emotional responses, and very little beyond she’s wrong, he’s wrong and I know best kind of opinions. It may well be that SIRC is not to be trusted, but the dismissal of the substance of Fox’s arguments or a seeming unwillingness to either understand or address them, or indeed just remain civil, says more about the fanatical commenters than anything else could.
Particularly interesting is that in the final paragraph Fox concludes that “[o]ver the past few decades the government, the drinks industry and schools have done exactly the opposite of what they should do to tackle our dysfunctional drinking.” That doesn’t exactly jibe with her alleged image of an alcohol industry shill.
So while I don’t believe her theory is the only reason that some people behave badly when they drink, I certainly think it can account for a lot of the problems that are currently being blamed on alcohol. Shouldn’t we at least be able to talk about alternatives to the one way we now think about alcohol in society? Especially when you consider that the very organizations against it keep saying that the problem is growing and all their efforts are for naught. You’d think the neo-prohibitionists would welcome another way to combat what they perceive to be the biggest problem to hit society since the plague. But judging by this article’s critics, I can’t help but think they’re not going to change the way they think about alcohol anytime soon.
It’s fine to note her ties to funders, and to consider things in perspective, but ad hominem is a logical fallacy. Someone can even be a shill and still have reasonable findings.
I teach psych, and one of the hardest messages to get across is that our actions are often the result of something other than what we think they are. People hate the idea that what controls their behavior isn’t booze or the media or our will, but often a mess of unconscious drives on which we rarely have a handle.
No one believes they can get “drunk” on a placebo, but lots of people can and will. Of course alcohol – especially in large quantities – has a very real effect on inhibition and judgment, but she’s definitely not totally wrong.