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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  • Comment number 1073.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1072.

    I am astonished at the vitriolic nature of some of the reader comments. What right does anyone have to apply the term 'idiot' to those who hold opposing opinions. However I do agree that some commentors appear to have missed Ms Fox's point. The clue is in the title of the article itself; "is the alcohol message all wrong"? I see no evidence of her expounding the virtue of alcohol.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1071.

    The BBC should really be careful when using articles like this from 'think tanks' like this. The British Medical Journal calls the SIRC a PR front for the drinks industry and the BMJ is a very well respected journal.

    The article is here:

  • Comment number 1070.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1069.

    Why are we looking to a trend-watcher for advise on how fix the UK's broken drug policy? Because the government had real scientists do real research and they came to a very different conclusion:

    Sadly they were immediately sacked for being so audacious as to publish their findings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1068.

    Well put, though this is hardly news to many of us - the wine-with-food (i.e. integrated) drinkers. But even if UK governments ever understood all this, or dared to say so, would they ever give up the tendency to "show their concern" by increasing alcohol duty even further (and raising some useful revenue)? That simply doesn't work, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out over 200 years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1067.

    Ok, I'm prepared to accept some of the above article as provable science, but if we as a nation have these beliefs and preconceptions about alcohol; where do we get them from? About 500 years of first hand observation of others and ourselves I would suggest. Ergo, the effects are what they are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1066.

    Depressing, isn't it?
    Whatever is written, we'll misread it in order to give our prejudices yet another airing.
    Why bother?
    No-one's listening anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1065.

    It is not as simple as that; this is the genotype vs phenotype, or nature vs nurture argument. So, whilst upbringing does indeed affect behavioural responses to pharmacological interventions, the foundations, the degrees of freedom for such responses are laid down by genotype. Otherwise, well yes, I am used to my cousins in the social sciences acting as though biology is not very relevant. Wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1064.

    i read it twice and i still think that someone is trying to boost her career profile.

    i've never heard this theory before and there is probably a very good reason for that - it's just plain wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1063.

    I agree that alcohol brings upt the person underneath. I spent a few years in a relationship I didn't want to be in and couldn't get out of, when I went out drinking with him, my personality would change to be very argumentative and angry as I couldn't hold in the underlying frustration. Now that things are better, I still drink as much but do not get the mood swings & stay happy and relaxed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1062.

    @1022. BadlyPackedKebab

    Korsakoff's syndrome is caused by the lifestyle that often goes along with alcoholism and is caused by the direct action of alcohol on the body. Alcoholics tend, for various reasons, to not eat a healthy diet and so become thiamine deficient- which leads to Korsakoff's

  • rate this

    Comment number 1061.

    This doesn't make sense. If people are capable of behaving well while drunk if offered incentives (even something as trivial as 'social approval') then why do they crash cars, kill people, kill themselves, fall downstairs breaking their legs and so on? Personally I think staying alive is an incentive to behave properly!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1060.

    "...even when people are very drunk they are perfectly capable of remaining in complete control of their behaviour - of behaving as though they were totally sober", Fox quotes and advocates. Wonder how she'd feel about flying on an airline if drinks were freely available in the cockpits - in moderation of course. I'm guessing Fox drank heavily while writing this, proof it does impair.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1059.

    Should never have given supermarkets a licence to sell.
    1/2 of alcohol sales go through these outlets at duty free prices.
    Laws were changed to enable 24 hour supply by last Govt.
    Wonder which Ministers got the lobbying fees & how much in donations went into the party funds to get this passed. All its done is to help destroy an industry and many jobs and an extra future burdon on the NHS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1058.

    Other studies have shown that if you are not a risk taker sober, then you are still less likely to be risk takers drunk. Alcohol doesn't change personality except in addicts. People give themselves permission to be anti-social or over-amourous. Behaviour is a choice, just as getting drunk is a choice. Brits need to learn how to enjoy themselves properly instead of turning into donkeys.

  • Comment number 1057.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1056.

    I stopped reading at "... The problem is that we Brits believe that alcohol has magical powers... "

    Get yourself a real job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1055.

    Even if an underlying cause is social it is undeniable that in the UK alcohol consumption has a causal correlation with violence and other criminal behavior, i.e. a reduction in consumption, achievable by a price hike, is still a highly desirable move.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1054.

    Sad to see how few question this PR-job paid for by the drinks industry. Google Kate Fox's "MCM Research" and "SIRC", you'll see who paid for this psuedo-scientific crap.

    The false dichotomy is that no one would object to more personal responsibility. That doesn't mean alcohol is not an addictive hard-drug that impairs judgement and badly damages physical and mental health, regardless of culture.


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