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.

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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 913.

    On the continent people go out to drink.
    In Britain people go out to get drunk.
    There's a huge difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 912.

    Anglophone "but shouldn't grown ups be allowed to to go to Hell in the manner of their own choosing?"
    Does that go for Addicts as well? they area a lot less hassel to the country and commit a less crime than alcohol users..!

  • rate this

    Comment number 911.

    Perhaps instead of your nonsense social anthropology you should study an actual science and determine exactly what alcohol does to the brain/body instead of this shameful conjecture based on a single study. Just because placebo-alcohol (the power of suggestion) can cause a small effect, doesn't mean that if you give people more they'll actually get smashed.

    This is garbage of the worst variety.

  • rate this

    Comment number 910.

    This article is refreshing but I've some concerns that this approach might end up being used to simply justify & maintain the high social status that I feel alcohol is wrongly given in our society. One thing I can’t stand about our culture, where excessive drinking is normalised, is that we offer little help, support and respect for those who have genuine, often life-long struggles with alcohol.

  • rate this

    Comment number 909.

    Alcohol is certainly a factor in loosening inhibitions and therefore increasing the problems we have within our culture. Thinking about the bigger picture in the UK, issues such as celebrity worshipping and the "I NEED AND WANT THAT NOW" attitude of our youth are much more worrying and immediate problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 908.

    The placebo effect. We will find out if it is true when, one of these days, a drinks manufacturer will sell bottles of "booze" which we all THINK are alcoholic, but are NOT. They will pay no excise duty, and make a bigger profit. And the binge drinker will have a good time, but still be able to drive home. Everyone is a winner. Come on you drinks companies...make a fortune for your shareholders!

  • rate this

    Comment number 907.

    "People should free be to make their own choices. Eventually they will learn the way of their mistakes.. people generally do grow up."
    One of the things with alcohol it prevents learning and leads to a downward spiral in behaviour and social interaction. With long term users stuck on the same problems in life all thier life in perpetualy decreasing circles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 906.

    This whole article was awesome. Connecting the dots between the notion that one is not responsible for their own actions while drunk and how alcohol education only reinforces this erroneous belief. I suppose the following saying is apt, "a drunk man's rant is a sober man's thought."

  • rate this

    Comment number 905.

    The Brits are not going to change, just look at the streets of Cardif and Newcastle on a Saturday night. People want to get wasted to escape from their reality, so bottoms up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 904.

    I agree it has been proven that if faced with an ideology constantly, people will automaticly believe the idea and act accordingly. Take smoking for example 1920's it was cool and doctors advertised it now its the most attacked publicly, media does infect our mind.

    Media & Cultural Studies Student

    NEVER quote wikipedia if you want to prove a point, it can be written by ANYONE

  • rate this

    Comment number 903.

    All we need to know :
    "Do your PR initiatives sometimes look too much like PR initiatives? MCM conducts social/psychological research on the positive aspects of your business. The results do not read like PR literature, or like market research data. Our reports are credible, interesting and entertaining in their own right. This is why they capture the imagination of the media and your customers."

  • rate this

    Comment number 902.

    People should free be to make their own choices. Eventually they will learn the way of their mistakes.. people generally do grow up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 901.

    Would LOVE to hear what the BBC has to say in response to the fact that the author works for a company that lobby's on behalf of the drinks industry.Won't happen though, more sloppy work from the BBC.
    Usually in such articles we have a opposite point of view.
    BTW, i'd like to invite Mrs. Fox to an evening in HighWycombe and see what she has to say at 4 am with blood and vomit covering the street!

  • rate this

    Comment number 900.

    I think with people who are violent and antisocial when they get drunk, the violent tendencies were already there, just that they are more repressed when the person is sober.
    I am fond of a few glasses of wine myself on occasion but you'd never find me behaving in a violent or antisocial manner. It's definitely more down to the mentality of the person drinking rather than the actual alcohol

  • rate this

    Comment number 899.

    @EGS44 may i suggest you look at cannabinoid receptors. then you will realise there are no other factors. from T cell creation in the liver to nuronal fireing in the brain and CNS. Alcohol stresses and damages it all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 898.





  • rate this

    Comment number 897.

    A highly refreshing article. Alcohol is the catalyst of our repressed society; leaders have a bigger problem they cannot plaster with their current tactics. The state of mind of the consumer determines the outcome. I binge drink, I know why and I understand my state of mind during and before intoxication. Though I never cause trouble, I know taxation, scare tactics are not going to stop me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 896.

    This article raises some interesting views, BUT it is wholly one-sided and disingenuous in its arguments, credit to the BBC for making clear Ms Fox's industry links, unfortunately many will miss this and based upon the BBC posting take it all as fact. In offering this sole view point how is the BBC giving a balanced argument? Invite someone like Aric Sigman author of Alcohol Nation to comment

  • rate this

    Comment number 895.


    So alcohol, as defined by Wikipedia (so it must be right!) is a psychoactive drug that acts upon the central nervous system.

    Sorry to be the one to break the news but I always thought that was precisely the point!

    PS: It is also well known that drink too much for too long and it will do you in, but shouldn't grown ups be allowed to to go to Hell in the manner of their own choosing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 894.

    This makes sense. I like what she has to say. I think it is much more about what we are conditioned to believe. At the end of the day, we find it socially acceptable to have one-night stands, to have fights on friday nights and to forget what we did the night before. In fact, all this is cool. Let's stop excusing stupid behaviour and get our country back on track


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