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 933.

    Press release of research paper is regurgitated without any analysis, exploration, or reference to previous studies.
    SIRC get a free advert, plus the BBC get to plug a Radio 4 programme.
    The effects of alcohol on the brain, and within different socio-economic groups and cultures is well documented already, and make more interesting reading than this.
    There is no point in this kind of report.

  • rate this

    Comment number 932.

    I would also like to say to all those famous 'responsible' drinkers that whichever latest survey you take to heart to ease your conscience drinking is essentially a weakness to cover something wrong in your life.

    I am all for us having a good time but being bored to death by people who have had a 'few' drinks is not my idea of fun.

  • rate this

    Comment number 931.

    @parkin480, Ms. Fox is arguing that all the bad behaviour of drinkers is because they've been conditioned to behave that way, not because they've actually lost control i.e. that "even when you are drunk, you are in control of and have total responsibility for your actions and behaviour." This *must* include drunk drivers ergo, 'I should crash because it's expected of me' - which is NONSENSE.

  • rate this

    Comment number 930.

    I honestly think the fact that alcohol inhibits judgement, and even perhaps deconditions the brain to what is generally known to be safe. I personally think "angry drunks" are people who are violent or are inclined to violence anyway, and alcohol removes any inhibitor their mind which normally stops them from being overtly aggressive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 929.

    Brilliant article and a pleasure to read an intelligent analysis of the real alcohol problem in Britain. Many thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 928.

    There actually is scientific basis to this. Here is a study if you want to learn more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 927.

    This has to be the thinnest argument for inaction to date. Our cultural norms are just that, 'norms'; and by definition they won't change for the better without some committed action to tackle alcohol's price and availability which has normalised drinking into ill health. The social and health impacts of alcohol are seriously damaging in the UK and that coffee analogy was ridiculous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 926.

    Interesting article. I've not had a drink for ages but I still want to give Ms Fox a good seeing-to, what does that mean? Maybe if I was pissed I might not fancy her...

  • rate this

    Comment number 925.

    Come on folks this article is clearly a joke. Or do the BBC now believe that it's job is to provoke reaction by publishing specious nonsense like this? Or perhaps alcohol really doesn't slow drivers' reactions, they just think it does, so don't discourage drink-driving? Tell that to the bereaved families. I gave up drinking alcohol 20 years ago; not a drop since; best decision I ever made.

  • rate this

    Comment number 924.

    Anglophone, "shouldn't grown ups be allowed to to go to Hell in the manner of their own choosing?" - NO, not if they hurt innocent people on the way down. Have *you* ever been glassed in the face by a drunk without provocation? Has anyone in your family died under the wheels of a vehicle driven by a drunk?

  • rate this

    Comment number 923.

    I've watched two people get drunk drinking 'spiked' drinks. Both were completely unfamiliar with alcohol and there behaviour was quite different from normal people.

    The alcohol intially appeared to have no effect at all. When it did hit the effect was spectacular and dramatic. There was none of the gradual transition from sober to drunk that we normally expect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 922.

    As a reformed drinker or just simply as somebody who has a working brain I have rarely read so much utter garbage. This woman needs to get a real job or at least become a proper anthropologist. She also needs to get out and see the widespread misery that alcohol causes. It results in a much greater strain on our health and the NHS than smoking but is tolerated as it is 'acceptable'. Ban alcohol.

  • rate this

    Comment number 921.

    @ Phil also maybe consider the cannabis might be making you sick, just saying..
    Hmmm almost as bad as the artical.. Cannabis has become so expensive because it does the opposit fixes the nausia of the most demanding chemo. so it would be no good to shareholders or people if it made you sick.
    People who throw up the first few times of cannabis use are activating the fight n flight responce.

  • rate this

    Comment number 920.

    So is the entire point of this article a slightly round about way of saying "I think (I'm drunk), therefore I am"?

    Sounds a bit familiar

  • rate this

    Comment number 919.

    The article is quite true. I sit at home drinking, and feel no compunction, even when 'drunk' to commit acts of aggression. But you are going to rely on the media to make drinking 'boring'? Good luck with that one. The media have a vested interest in keeping drink exciting and edgy, even when there is no scientific basis for doing so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 918.

    This chick should get a proper job for herself to start with.
    I grew up in USSR and alcohol was very popular back then.
    I sow with my own eyes how families been completely destroyed, how women were bitten to a pole, how men drunk themselves to death, and the list goes on and on. The sooner we put a lid on it the better for everyone, and the taxpayers in particular.

  • rate this

    Comment number 917.

    Just because Ms Fox says we are wrong doesn't make her right. Alcohol is still the trigger to misery for 1 in 3 families. Is the effect alcohol abuse has on our liver, brain and circulatory system purely because we believe it? As far as the argument that "experiments show..." I would suggest looking at the in situ evidence in A&E at weekends rather than manufactured in vitro eperiments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 916.

    There's an old adage - "A gentleman drunk is a gentleman sober". Many people use alcohol as an excuse for exercising the anti-social aspects of their true personality. We all have them. Those who exercise self discipline do so whether they are drunk or sober. You don't need double blind trials to realise that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 915.

    @ carbonbasebloke, go back to your dot-to-dot books.

  • rate this

    Comment number 914.

    @896 the bit where it says "viewpoint" in the title says it all, its that persons viewpoint, if it gave a balanced argument, it would cease to be kate fox's viewpoint, @888, if u dont like seeing people drink, nobody is forcing you to, also maybe consider the cannabis might be making you sick, just saying..


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