Viewpoint: Is the alcohol message all wrong?

Posters advertising alcohol Concerns are high over binge drinking

Many people think heavy drinking causes promiscuity, violence and anti-social behaviour. That's not necessarily true, argues Kate Fox.

I am a social anthropologist, but what I do is not the traditional intrepid sort of anthropology where you go and study strange tribes in places with mud huts and monsoons and malaria.

I really don't see why anthropologists feel they have to travel to unpronounceable corners of the world in order to study strange tribal cultures with bizarre beliefs and mysterious customs, when in fact the weirdest and most puzzling tribe of all is right here on our doorstep. I am of course talking about my own native culture - the British.

And if you want examples of bizarre beliefs and weird customs, you need look no further than our attitude to drinking and our drinking habits. Pick up any newspaper and you will read that we are a nation of loutish binge-drinkers - that we drink too much, too young, too fast - and that it makes us violent, promiscuous, anti-social and generally obnoxious.

Clearly, we Brits do have a bit of a problem with alcohol, but why?

The problem is that we Brits believe that alcohol has magical powers - that it causes us to shed our inhibitions and become aggressive, promiscuous, disorderly and even violent.

But we are wrong.

Find out more

Kate Fox
  • Kate Fox is a social anthropologist and director of the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC)
  • SIRC has conducted research for companies in the alcohol industry, as well as the government and others
  • Her episode of Four Thought is on BBC Radio 4 on 12 October 2011 at 20:45 BST

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.

This variation cannot be attributed to different levels of consumption - most integrated drinking cultures have significantly higher per-capita alcohol consumption than the ambivalent drinking cultures.

Instead the variation is clearly related to different cultural beliefs about alcohol, different expectations about the effects of alcohol, and different social rules about drunken comportment.

Youth drinking Buckfast tonic wine In the UK, heavy drinking is associated with a range of stereotypes

This basic fact has been proved time and again, not just in qualitative cross-cultural research, but also in carefully controlled scientific experiments - double-blind, placebos and all. To put it very simply, the experiments show that when people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol.

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.

But it is possible to change our drinking culture. Cultural shifts happen all the time, and there is extensive evidence (again from carefully controlled experiments, conducted in natural settings such as bars and nightclubs) to show that it doesn't take much to effect dramatic changes in how people behave when they drink.

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Alcohol education will have achieved its ultimate goal not when young people in this country are afraid of alcohol and avoid it because it is toxic and dangerous, but when they are frankly just a little bit bored by it”

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These experiments show that even when people are very drunk, if they are given an incentive (either financial reward or even just social approval) they are perfectly capable of remaining in complete control of their behaviour - of behaving as though they were totally sober.

To achieve these changes, we need a complete and radical re-think of the aims and messages of all alcohol-education campaigns. So far, these efforts have perpetuated or even exacerbated the problem, because almost all of them simply reinforce our beliefs about the magical disinhibiting powers of alcohol.

The drinkaware website, for example, warns young people that a mere three pints of beer (ie a perfectly normal evening out) "can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour", that "you might start saying things you don't mean and behaving out of character", that alcohol is implicated in a high percentage of sexual offences and street crimes, and that the morning after "you may wonder what you did the night before".

I would like to see a complete change of focus, with all alcohol-education and awareness campaigns designed specifically to challenge these beliefs - to get across the message that a) alcohol does not cause disinhibition (aggressive, sexual or otherwise) and that b) even when you are drunk, you are in control of and have total responsibility for your actions and behaviour.

Alcohol education will have achieved its ultimate goal not when young people in this country are afraid of alcohol and avoid it because it is toxic and dangerous, but when they are frankly just a little bit bored by it, when they don't need to be told not to binge-drink vodka shots, any more than they now need to be told not to swig down 15 double espressos in quick succession.

Even the silliest teenagers would not dream of doing that. And not because they have been educated about the dangers of a caffeine overdose - although there undoubtedly are such dangers - but because it would just be daft, what would be the point?

What we should be aiming for is a culture where you don't need alcohol-education programmes, any more than we now need coffee or tea education programmes.

If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem - a nation in which young people would binge-drink coffee every Friday and Saturday night and then rampage around town centres being anti-social, getting into fights and having unprotected sex in random one-night stands.

Police question a man who has been assaulted There are cultures where drinking is not associated with violence

I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee.

I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six "units") of coffee "can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour", and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so.

I could legitimately base many of my scary coffee-awareness warnings on the known effects of caffeine, and I could easily make these sound like a recipe for disaster, or at least for disinhibition and public disorder.

It would not take long for my dire warnings to create the beliefs and expectations that would make them self-fulfilling prophecies. This may sound like a science fiction story, but it is precisely what our misguided alcohol-education programmes have done.

Over 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. I remain perhaps stupidly optimistic that eventually they will find the courage to turn things around and start heading in the right direction.

This is an edited version of Kate Fox's Four Thought broadcast.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 893.

    This article is written by a person who has written a book published by the Portman Group,an organisation funded by the following companies.
    Bacardi Brown Forman
    Beverage Brands (UK) Ltd
    Carlsberg UK
    Diageo Great Britain
    Heineken UK
    InBev UK Ltd
    Magners GB Ltd
    Molson Coors Brewing Company UK Ltd
    Pernod Ricard UK.
    Also a book published by Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association.

  • rate this

    Comment number 892.

    Doozie 875 - not wishing to offend but this is a perfect illustration of my comment 876. Drink doesn't matter. It just gives you a belief that behaving horrifically is o.k. If you are decent person, drinking only harms yourself. If you are going to behave badly, drink is just ANOTHER excuse to do so .We should be looking at the root cause of that behaviour, not finding excuses for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 891.

    I think Mrs Fox is doing a good thing here....well done.....I'd like to buy her a drink......then another........then another.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 890.

    Thank you Ms Fox and BBC for a very thought provoking article. I found the placebo experiment particularly interesting, I had never considered such before. As other comments have noted, there is a chemical basis for intoxication that is proven to exist. That being said, Ms Fox's research should be included in creating effective alcohol awareness campaigns.

  • rate this

    Comment number 889.

    Well we know that alcohol reduces inhibitions so there's nothing new there - if you're not a very nice person the alcohol will bring that out in you - but what is SIRC and how are they funded?

  • rate this

    Comment number 888.

    Alcohol should be a class A drug according to current law. Either ban alcohol or legalise other drugs. I'm a cannabis smoker and seeing excessive drinking like this makes me sick.

  • rate this

    Comment number 887.

    @Andrew K Apologies but I've only been at university for 2 weeks and we've already been warned of the dangers of quoting Wikipedia in our research references.
    Though I don't deny that alcohol does all those things, the human brain is too complicated for us to fully understand at the moment and there could be countless other factors some of which may well include simple unwarranted behavior change

  • rate this

    Comment number 886.

    Fake is she?
    The Watching the English press comments
    "Intriguing new book [from a] renowned people-watcher" Daily Express
    "A delightful read" Sunday Times
    "A leading anthropologist reveals the rules of Englishness" Mail on Sunday

  • rate this

    Comment number 885.

    I'm sorry but the main argument being used to counter this article is "i've lived abroad and they have problems with promiscuity too" which only goes to support the article that cultural relativism is a major factor in how alcohol affects people. alcohol does not make people act aggressively it simply effects perception etc which would only increase social norms, in this case aggession.

  • rate this

    Comment number 884.

    This article, or should I say story, presents opinions as scientific facts. It makes no reference to the interaction on behaviour alcohol has due to being a known mood enhancer. This helps to explain varying behavioural responses. Furthermore the article relies on the supopsition that people believe alcohol makes them behave in the way suggested, there is no research presented that supports this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 883.

    I could not agree more with this article! I once served a couple double vodka+mixer (for the gent) and pineapple juice (for the lady)during an evening, by the end of it I noticed the woman acting surprisingly drunk off this pineapple juice, her inhibitions clearly lowered as they were fondling each other at the bar. Turns out she thought she'd been drinking Bacardi all night in her pineapple juice

  • rate this

    Comment number 882.

    @Doozie What makes alcohol so different from all the other drugs out there?
    @June yes bad behavoiur is already present in some people especialy in high alcohol use areas were nuronal FAS is common FAS dont just effect features it also has a massive impact on mental health learning etc, as the damage in the adult is replicated in the fetus who has no protective systems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 881.

    Does anyone remember the research that the tobacco industry used to trot out, argueing that tobacco wasnt harmful ?
    Has any non-smoker evaded death then?

  • Comment number 880.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 879.

    "Pick up any newspaper and you will read that we are a nation of loutish binge-drinkers - that we drink too much, too young, too fast - and that it makes us violent, promiscuous, anti-social and generally obnoxious. Clearly, we Brits do have a bit of a problem with alcohol, but why?"

    A social anthropologist who quotes the tabloids' view of society without any sense of irony... What is this dross?

  • rate this

    Comment number 878.

    The moral panic people are out in force! All we have is a well written, and empirically researched article challenging a few contemporary social mores.

    Perhaps this country's biggest problem isn't binge drinking "yoof"! It's ill-informed, knee-jerk, curtain-twitching prejudice!

    Let's not forget that the definition of puritanism is "the nagging fear that somewhere, someone is having fun!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 877.

    Spot on Ms. Fox. But if you want to understand why government and media communication on the issue is so wrongheaded you have to extend your study to those organizations. If you did I suspect you'd find that they have no real desire to change behavior. The government wants to distract from the real issues and redirect blame for social ills. The media wants to increase viewership/sell papers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 876.

    I think it is deeper and more worrying than just drink.Our society is breaking down. Some young people have no respect for others. Gangs are seen as manly.When mere children can terrorise estates as there are no means to control them, something is far wrong. Law abiding decent mainstream people don't behave like yobs just because they've had a drink. Bad behaviour is endemic in some without drink.

  • rate this

    Comment number 875.




  • rate this

    Comment number 874.

    I don't know if Ms Fox likes a drink or not, (her photo suggests she could have done with a stiff drink to help her relax a bit), but I do believe that what she says makes sense. More research about the effects of alcohol is clearly needed and if she is looking for volunteers I would put myself forward. All I know for certain is that if I drink enough, I fall over.


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