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Why Some Alcoholics Become Angry or Aggressive When They Drink?

Alcohol affects everyone differently. Some people get playfully rowdy while others get cruelly aggressive. It may seem like the agitator’s fault for being a mean drunk or acting out, but research is proving that individuals are biologically wired to become argumentative and unfair when they drink alcohol. Through this analysis, we can begin to understand how a person can change from sweet to sour with just a few drinks in their system.

The Link Between Alcohol and Aggression

Research supported by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Center for Research, conducted at Ohio State University (OSU), investigated which trait determines whether alcohol will make the drinker more aggressive after alcohol consumption. The research separated those who are more likely to become aggressive when intoxicated and those without the key trait who do not show increased belligerence. By being aware of their increased risk for aggression, people are better equipped to plan and prevent any angry, aggressive, or mean behavior sparked by alcohol ingestion. Identifying and acknowledging this trait has the potential to save a lot of heartache, disturbances, and grievances after a night of drinking.

Alcohol Myopia and Aggression

We think of “being present” as a positive trait in our society. Professor Brad Bushman, the OSU study’s author, said in a university news release that “it makes sense that alcohol would make present-focused people more aggressive.” Bushman says that “alcohol myopia” describes the tendency of alcohol to increase an individual’s focus on current events and decrease their awareness of distant, future events. People who tend to ignore tomorrow’s consequences may be more likely to aggressively act out when they are intoxicated and in a situation that is aggravating to them. Peter Giancola, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, co-authored the paper with Bushman and led the experiments used in the OSU study which support Bushman’s argument. Giancola stated that “if you carefully consider the consequences of your actions, it is unlikely getting drunk is going to make you any more aggressive than you usually are.” The study shows a connection to alcohol aggressiveness and other personality traits.

The participants in the study were scored on their responses from the “Consideration of Future Consequences scale.” They were prompted to answer to what extent they agreed with statements such as “I only act to satisfy immediate concerns, figuring the future will take care of itself.” These scores were used to measure how much participants were “present-focused” or “future-focused”. The study consisted of 495 adults, with an average age of 23, who were all classified as social drinkers. Prior to beginning the study, all participants were screened for past or present drug, alcohol, and psychiatric-related problems.

The participants were given either mixed drinks with a 1:5 ratio of alcohol to orange juice (alcohol group) or drinks that had orange juice with a small amount of alcohol (placebo group). Aggression was measured based on a 1967 strategy of harmless electric shock. At the beginning of the study, the researchers recorded the participants’ threshold to the electric shock pain to establish a baseline of pain tolerance. Participants were told that they were competing with a same-sex opponent in a computer-based speed response test. The winner of the test was then told to deliver an electrical shock to the loser. The winner determined the intensity and the length of the shock delivered to the loser.

Unbeknownst to the participants, there was no opponent. In the study, there were 34 randomly determined trials, and the researchers made sure that the participant won half of them. Each time the participant was randomly selected to lose, they received an electric shock that increased in length and intensity over the course of the trials. This allowed researchers to identify if participants would react to the shocks that they believed an opponent had given them by retaliation with a more aggressive shock. Bushman stated that “the participants were led to believe they were dealing with a real jerk who got more and more nasty as the experiment continued.” Bushman’s purpose for this setup was to mirror what occurs in participants’ real lives, aggression escalates as time goes on and tensions rise.

The results were impressive and in line with what Bushman predicted. Participants who were classified as short-sighted, were more likely to aggressively retaliate, especially when they were drunk. Intoxicated participants who were classified as more present-focused shocked their opponents longer and more intensely than any other participants in the study. The study also showed that alcohol consumption did not have much impact on the aggressiveness of future-focused people.

It is important to note that male participants were more aggressive in their responses than their female counterparts, but the impacts of alcohol and personality were almost interchangeable in both sexes. Women who were present-focused were still much more aggressive when drunk than women who were future-focused, just like men. Bushman believes that the “results should serve as a warning to people who live only in the moment without thinking too much about the future.” Lack of consideration for future consequences is a trait to look out for and consider when consuming alcohol in a situation that could go awry.

Genetics and Impulsive Behavior

Another research study, conducted in Finland, took an approach that considered the genetics of individuals and how their makeup may make them more prone to aggression when under the influence of alcohol. These researchers questioned 156 participants on their alcohol history and personality traits. The study found that participants who had a certain genetic mutation called HTR2B Q20 were more likely to act out aggressively, lash out at others, and become mean when they drink. Although this study was eye-opening, researchers still do not know everything about how genes can influence the way that people react to alcohol.

Researchers like Roope Tikkanen, M.D, Ph.D., have learned that HTR2B Q20 carriers have a lower number of brain receptors that contribute to controlling impulsive behavior. This decrease in receptors contributes to a lack of impulse control. Someone with HTR2B Q20 may be less likely to control their impulse to punch someone who bumped into them at a crowded bar or blurt out all the resentments one has towards their sister or best friend. This mutation is believed to only affect up to 2% of the population, and Dr. Tikkanen suspects that it is exclusive to individuals of Finnish descent.

It has been proven that drinking makes most people more impulsive. There are two reasons why this occurs. First, certain neurotransmitter receptors can make people feel more relaxed or sedated, which signals the release of increased levels of the chemical dopamine. With an influx of dopamine, the brain’s reward center becomes activated, making people more open to doing things that they might not do when sober. While not all individuals acting up at a bar have that particular gene mutation, this biological response could explain their impulsive behavior as well.

Sober Characteristics

Baseline characteristics can contribute to why some drinkers become angry, aggressive, or mean when they drink alcohol. Rachel Winograd, Ph.D. of the University of Missouri has looked into sober characteristics. A person who is unpleasant when sober may match unpleasant behavior when intoxicated. Alcohol may intensify aspects of an individuals’ existing personality. Simply put, people who are usually argumentative when they are sober may be more likely to initiate a fight or become aggressive when drunk. With an added boost of impulsivity due to what alcohol does to the brain, even those who classify themselves as kind and considerate when they are sober can become hostile and vengeful when they are drunk. Winograd’s current research discovered that up to 25% of individuals surveyed admitted that they became significantly less agreeable, responsible, and thoughtful when they drank compared to when they were sober.

Effect on the Prefrontal Cortex

Additional research published in the Journal of Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, discusses one of the most commonly known reasons for impulsive behavior; changes in the prefrontal cortex. The study looked at MRI scans of drunk and sober men with alcohol-related modifications in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain believed to be responsible for moderating social behavior, impulse control, and executive function. Extensive research shows that this region of the brain is closely associated with alcohol-induced anger.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia studied 50 healthy men (18-30 years old) and had them play an anger-inducing game while in an MRI scanner. Historically, alcohol has been known to disrupt the normal functioning of various brain regions, particularly the parts responsible for working memory, hand-eye coordination, and sleep quality. MRI evidence now connects aggression with alcohol-induced changes in the prefrontal cortex. Intoxicated players showed a significant dip in their MRI brain activity, specifically in their prefrontal cortex, compared to sober players when making an aggressive response. In particular, participants who drank alcohol showed lower activity in regions known as the dorsomedial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices, which are related to working memory and inhibition.

Researchers from this study stated that one reason aggression can surface after alcohol consumption is that the brain focuses its attention on instigating cues like noise blasts and lessens its attention on inhibitory cues which assists in refraining from aggressive behavior. Simply said, the researchers believe that the dampening effects on the prefrontal cortex contribute to why intoxicated players become more biased toward hostile cues and care less about social etiquette. As with any study, more research is needed, but these MRI studies help create a clearer idea of what specifically induces aggression.

Managing Alcohol-Induced Aggression

Drinkers who become angry and do not act like themselves with alcohol in their system should not take it lightly. This abrupt and opposing personality shift can be immensely disruptive and lead to violence and ruined relationships. Identifying this behavior can also be an indication that you have a problem with alcohol, even if the amount of the alcohol is minimal. The exact amount of alcohol that will initiate aggression is unknown and varies from person to person. At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we understand that every individual handles alcohol differently and we approach our treatment and care with that in mind.

One way to limit alcohol aggression is to track how much alcohol it takes to before you become someone you don’t want to be and cut yourself off before you become a mean drunk. Another option is to completely abstain from alcohol. If you are still having issues controlling your aggressive behavior while drinking, consider reaching out for help and the healing of Boardwalk Recovery Center.

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