Getting Tipsy: Alcohol and Self Control

Instead of making a moral judgment about the person involved, talk about how the brain responds to even the smallest amount of alcohol with diminished ability to self-correct mistakes.

Imagine driving in a heavy rainstorm and seeing a sign that the road ahead is dangerously flooded. Would you heed the warning, turn around, and find another route?

"Of course," you say. "Who wouldn't?"

Sadly, this answer and your behavior are likely to be different if you have consumed a few drinks. Despite rationally knowing the potential consequences of ignoring the flood alert, you will probably continue driving forward at the same speed while mumbling that such signs always exaggerate conditions. 

Perhaps soon you get stuck in high water, and a good samaritan is able to push your car to dry ground. Does this brush with danger convince you to change your route or rate of speed? 

As long as you have alcohol in your body, the answer is likely to be no.

How does intoxication convert a normally cautious individual into one with a false sense of being bullet-proof? Why does he or she ignore the consequences of a misstep and continue to make poor decisions with regard to future actions?

Alcohol Affects Thinking and Caring

According to a recent study, alcohol dulls the part of our brain that warns of an impending mistake. Even after a frightening error has occurred – such as one's car stalling in flood waters -- the drinker is less likely than a sober person to be bothered about this miscalculation and/or to change his or her next choice of action. 

It is this lack of caring that can escalate a minor event into a tragedy.

Fortunately, the majority of consequences of alcohol-related impaired judgment are minor, and most drunks simply embarrass themselves and/or loved ones with bawdy stories or inappropriate flirtations and nurse a painful hangover the next day. But sometimes – especially for teens -- this lessening of self-control results in high-risk behaviors that can have tragic consequences, such as sexual acting out and drunk driving.

Whether we drink or have pledged abstinence, this issue affects us all.

The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicates that nearly one-quarter of persons aged 12 or older participated in binge drinking in 2010. This is approximately 58.6 million people having impaired judgment in social and driving situations and the rest of us having to deal with them.

The Study

Researchers from the University of Missouri measured brain activity in 67 subjects, ages 21-35, who were given a difficult computer task designed to result in human error. One-third of the group were given alcoholic drinks, another third no alcohol, and the remaining group an alcohol-free placebo.

Subjects in the alcohol group had significantly reduced brain "alarm signals" when they made errors compared to the rest of the participants. However, although the drinkers realized they made a mistake, their behavior didn't self-correct by working slower or being more careful in the rest of the assigned tasks.

Lead researcher Bruce Bartholow explains this finding: "In tasks like the one we used, although we encourage people to respond as quickly as possible, it is very common for people to respond more slowly following an error, as a way of trying to regain self-control. That's what we saw in our placebo group. The alcohol group participants didn't do this."

These findings are similar to another study linking the effect of binge drinking to incorrect assessment of driving ability among college students. A link to this material is below.

There is no reason to believe that these findings do not also apply to drinkers in Lawrence Township.


Researchers do not know how much alcohol must be consumed in order to dull the brain signal that monitors mistakes and affects the ability to make rational, caring behavioral choices. The amount may vary by age, sex, genetics, ethnicity, emotional state, and/or medications a person is taking. 

This suggests that effective interventions are best done while the drinker is completely sober.

The "teachable moment" can be a discussion regarding a newspaper headline involving intoxicated behavior. Instead of making a moral judgment about the person involved, talk about how the brain responds to even the smallest amount of alcohol with diminished ability to self-correct mistakes. Be prepared to share some of the studies in this area such as those referenced in this column. 

Another tactic to use before a drinking situation arises is to make a written pact that when there is alcohol consumed that the intoxicated party will not drive or engage in other risky behaviors. This agreement can list acceptable alternatives such as carrying money for a cab, phone numbers of people who will provide a ride home, and/or a list of friends whose opinions regarding negative behavior will be heeded 

It is important for this document to also list consequences of breaking the contract that both parties agree are fair and realistic.

This is easiest done with a teen, as losing phone, computer, TV, and/or dating privileges are significant and easy to enforce. When the parties are both adults, penalties can range from financial to restrictions in the couple's social life to separation and/or divorce (and everything between). 

The important thing is to have repeated sober communications that stress and reinforce the importance of minimizing harm to self and others when one chooses to drink. It may be hard to follow through on agreed-upon consequences but ultimately, being resolute may be lifesaving.


 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110901135030.htm. University of Missouri-Columbia (2011, September 2). Alcohol dulls brain 'alarm' that monitors mistakes, study finds.ScienceDaily

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080511190840.htm. Binge Drinkers Have A Disconnect Between Assessing Their Driving Abilities And RealityScienceDaily (May 12, 2008)


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