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 1053.

    I'm 75 years of age and Jane is talking rubbish. The number of individuals I have met who have gone balistic under the influence of drink is surely enough proof that many in society just cannot handle it and they show that in their aggression towards both individuals and property. And at times even themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1052.

    Well I can't agree with this. As a student, I do plenty of drinking and I think alcohol mostly amplifies how you feel at any moment. If something would make you sad when sober, it will have a larger affect when drunk. The same with many emotions. It rarely changes people much though. A normally aggressive person won't suddenly stop nor will a passive person suddenly change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1051.

    From what I have observed, alcohol (& drugs) are just a vehicle for people of a certain ilk to manifest their inherent nastiness. Whilst decent people have a social drink with friends/family, others use it to excuse their vile behaviour. Then, if their behaviour is questioned afterwards, they can just use the alcohol as an excuse for not knowing what they were doing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1050.


    thank God for your mind! I am Canadian but of Greek descent. I have been living in London for just over two years and I was shocked to see the relationship this great country has to alcohol. I have been making your argument ever since my arrival on this wonderful rock. As I am deeply influenced by Greek culture, we learn early on that drinking inspires festive feelings, not destructive

  • rate this

    Comment number 1049.

    Well done Deep Jedi for proving my point that some Brits are incapable of understanding facts. Why not debate the article instead of trolling my comment? There are clearly many people commenting without reading, or certainly understanding, the article. Why do so many Brits act differently to other cultures when we drink alcohol? That is the simple point of the piece, but so many just don't get it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1048.

    The real question is what causes Brits to have this expectation of behavioural change. Convincing people that alcohol has no effect on behaviour might persuade them to give up drinking, which would make them healthier, but it's too simplistic to say it would stop them from behaving badly. If alcohol is not ultimately responsible for aggressive behaviour, then something else in our society must be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1047.

    Clearly our Kate has neva been oot on the Bigg Market of a weekend!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1046.

    at 1042
    If you're angry reading the article it's to be hoped you don't drink then. Wouldn't want to enhance your aggession. Afterall it is those who are normally agressive who tend to show it when drunk - the rest of us laugh and enjoy ourselves ; - )

  • rate this

    Comment number 1045.

    But alcohol being bad leads to socially responsible, ethically moral research grants so why say it's not so? Many alcohol researchers are likely to even consider the above has even a grain of truth. As for the Government - they can tax heavily and say they are regulating it for our benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1044.

    All drugs are susceptible to propaganda. I find alcohol simply heightens the emotions of the person consuming it; it doesn't morph people into aggressive thugs.

    Marijuana has a much harder time -- it seems governments ignore the facts.

    The 'Global Commission on Drug Policy report' & 'The FCDA Report' are simply dismissed by our "democratic" governments.

    Prohibition doesn't work!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1043.

    @1027: earthybynature

    Only one person was required to stop you getting into the car.


  • rate this

    Comment number 1042.

    No only is this article terribly written: it is plainly and obviously flawed. Reading it just makes me angry. What a fool this lady is!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1041.

    Its a its very nature it changes perception. It makes us believe in a warped reality. There is a lot of brainwashing that goes on around this legal drug. We attribute a lot of things to it that are not true. "But alcohol does NOT make you irresponsible" you are wrong my friend, it changes you. dont stick your head in the sand its changes people! its a drug!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1040.

    next thing most drinkers who drunk with parents and behavide well is you were not slaming vodka shots with mum n dad....
    Neilsstonsveryown.. alcohol shows irrasponcable behaviour by its chemical nature on receptors in the brain burning away many of your more social inhabitions as the mind degrades through chemical damage.. very little is pyshical/muscular effect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1039.

    If you lived in Britain you'd know why people get leathered

  • rate this

    Comment number 1038.

    Or, to put it another way, the British - a large proportion of them at least - are violent yobs who like to get drunk and start fighting with monotonous regularity. Whereas the inhabitants of Mediterranean countries don't.

    This is not exactly new. Just walk down any UK high street on a Saturday night. Such scenes don't happen on the streets of Florence, Munich, Avignon, Madrid, Vienna, etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1037.

    This article is spot on. I have sons who are young adults and early on taught them that alcohol is not some forbidden fruit, but just something to be enjoyed responsibly (i.e. don't drink and drive) with no dire warnings attached. To them, alcohol is no big deal and they find it absurd that some of their friends/classmates feel the need to get drunk and act like idiots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1036.

    "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."

    What part of this doesn't surprise you? The drinks industry emphasise alcohol education because they know it doesn't change behaviour - or as is highlighted can even reinforce it. Pricing, marketing and availability however...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1035.

    Not all of us are d*******s !
    That's not drunkards either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1034.

    So many people are missing the point. Alcohol can cause physical reactions, liver disease, vomiting, etc. But alcohol does NOT make you irresponsible. If you drink drive, fight or have one night stands it's not because you are drunk, it is because you are irresponsible.
    The article isn't saying it is ok to get drunk, it is saying our relationship & view of alcohol is what pushes us towards that.


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