Fact Check: Does Alcohol Cause Violence

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I’m sure many of us have been exposed to media’s portrayal of the drunk guy who is all 8552231637_824c2c5821_bmuscle and suddenly becomes overly aggressive after having a few beers.  But how much truth is there to the stereotype of drunk, angry men, or women for that matter?

The truth is, alcohol does not cause aggression.

It is relevant, though, just not necessarily the way you would think.  Back in 1990, Bushman and Cooper researched this and concluded that alcohol does indeed facilitate aggression in individuals who already tend to be aggressive.

This is how it works, according to a 2012 study by Newberry and colleagues.  For people who normally feel aggressive urges when sober, there is a part of the brain that keeps those urges in check.   When in a potentially violent situation, there is an increase in adrenaline throughout the body, which help the individual decide whether to fight or flee.  Anxiety and fear aid in this decision by determining whether or not the individual has a chance to survive the situation, and usually will decide that fleeing is the safer route.  However, alcohol reduces these inhibitions and the anxiety and fear that would normally take part in preventing the fight response, or aggression.

In contrast, for those who are not typically aggressive, being intoxicated does not increase aggression; aggression simply remains stable.  Ultimately, it is attitudes toward drinking and aggression that are important influencers on an individual’s actions when intoxicated.  Subra and colleagues in 2010 explains that societies often justify aggression when intoxicated and say the individual is not responsible for their actions because “everyone knows” that alcohol increases aggression.

These beliefs have become so engrained into the minds of today’s society that even exposure to alcohol-related cues tends to increase both aggressive thoughts and behaviors without any consumption of alcohol.  This finding from Subra and colleagues suggests that it’s not necessarily the alcohol that causes aggression, but the attitudes toward drinking that can facilitate aggression.

It is not only our attitudes toward drinking and violence that facilitates of violence, but the environment in which we choose to drink can also have a significant impact on our actions while intoxicated.  According to the 2012 Newberry and colleagues study mentioned earlier, temperature, noise, and population density may be contributing factors to aggression.

In summary, there are many different factors that are likely to contribute to aggression when one is under the influence of alcohol.  To say that alcohol causes aggression is not the complete story.  The environment and the people present can contribute to aggression just as genetic factors might.  Furthermore, society’s perception of alcohol-induced aggression plays a large role in actions of an individual while intoxicated or even in the presence of alcohol.

By Chelsea Giles
Chelsea is a senior planning to graduate in May of 2016 with a major in Psychology and minors in Human Development and Spanish. She plans to attend graduate school to earn her Ph.D in Counseling Psychology.


Bushman, B. J., & Cooper, H. M. (1990). Effects of alcohol on human aggression: An integrative research review. Psychological Bulletin, 107(3), 341-354.

Newberry, M., Williams, N., & Caulfield, L. (2012). Female alcohol consumption, motivations for aggression and aggressive incidents in licensed premises. Addictive Behaviors, 1884-1851. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2012.08.009

Subra, B., Muller, D., Bègue, L., Bushman, B. J., & Delmas, F. (2010). Automatic effects of alcohol and aggressive cues on aggressive thoughts and behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(8), 1052-1057. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167210374725


Aggression and Alcohol: Beliefs about Permissiveness of Violence

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Statistics regarding the prevalence of violence make the connection between alcohol consumption and aggression readily apparent. According to Dr. Peter R. Giancola, a professor and researcher of alcohol-related aggression at the University of Kentucky, “over 50% of violent acts occur under the influence of alcohol by the perpetrator.” As a bouncer at a bar in Nothern Wisconsin, I was able to witness this connection first hand. Almost nightly, bouts of violence would erupt, and I was required to defuse them. I noticed that, each time this happened, the individuals involved were highly intoxicated. Nevertheless, the vast majority of individuals are able to consume alcohol without becoming aggressive. This begs the question: is violence an inherent side effect of alcohol consumption, or are there other factors involved?

This was the question posed by a trio of researchers investigating the relationship between alcohol consumption and aggressive behavior. Dr. Giancola, the lead author of the study, states that the goal of the project was to, “isolate variables that put persons at risk for violence when under the influence of alcohol.” The researchers chose to examine the relationship between aggression while using alcohol and an individual’s beliefs about the permissiveness of violence, testing the hypothesis that, “persons who believe that violence is normal and permissive will become much more aggressive under alcohol when inhibitions are lifted.”

To test their theory, the researchers conducted two experiments. The first involved having participants complete a questionnaire about the acceptability of using violence and then dividing them into two groups, with one consuming alcoholic beverages and the other consuming a placebo. After the alcohol had taken effect, the participants were asked to engage in a reaction-time task against a fictitious opponent. Upon winning the task, the participants were able to administer a shock to the non-existent opponent. The same experiment was then replicated with a different set of participants.   The researchers found that aggression, as measured by the length and intensity of the shocks administered by the participants was significantly higher in the participants who consumed alcohol and had more permissive beliefs about violence.

One important aspect of the results is that, even though the experiments were conducted in a laboratory setting, they can be easily applied to real-world settings. Therefore, the early detection of permissive beliefs about violence can be of use in a variety of anger treatment programs, including, “one-on-one clinical interventions, anger group interventions, and public health interventions.” In addition, the results provide an important implication for the prevention of alcohol-related anger in new generations. Specifically, parents can potentially pass their permissive beliefs about violence onto their children. This creates an unfortunate cycle, as, “children will adopt the beliefs of their parents at a young age. Once those beliefs are solidified in memory, they are difficult to erase.” Thus, it is important for new or expecting parents to assess their beliefs about violence in order to prevent passing them on, and possibly perpetuating alcohol-related violence. Overall, given the versatile nature of the results, it seems Dr. Giancola and his colleagues have taken a tremendous step toward increasing the effectiveness of treatment programs, and, hopefully, decreasing the prevalence of alcohol-related violence.

By Matthew Machnik
Matthew Machnik is a senior Psychology major at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  He has a minor in Human Development and plans on attending graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.