Cecil: Do hard liquors have different psychological effects on an individual? Is there any truth to the common understanding that gin makes people mean? Off to conduct personal research … —Jasmine
Gin’s been associated with bad behavior ever since a change in laws governing distillation and a resulting drop in retail price helped make it the official beverage of the rowdy working classes in 18th-century London. But while a number of studies have looked at different drinks and their effects on the drinker’s comportment, none seems to have singled out gin for scrutiny. So what have the academics learned? Let’s survey the literature:
• A 1975 experiment performed by Kent State researchers Stuart Taylor and Charles Gammon was one of many to use the “aggression machine” paradigm, developed by psychologist Arnold Buss at the University of Pittsburgh in the early ’60s. In Taylor and Gammon’s version, 40 male subjects were given either a small or large quantity of vodka or bourbon—mixed liberally with ginger ale and a dash of peppermint oil so they wouldn’t know what they were getting. (Oddly enough, this cocktail never caught on.) Then, after some time had elapsed, each was seated at a control panel with an electrode strapped to his wrist. He was told he’d be competing in a series of reaction-time tests against an unseen opponent; the winner of each round would select the intensity of an electric shock to be received by the loser. The whole thing was, of course, rigged—there was no opponent, and all the subjects “won” and “lost” the same number of trials and received shocks of the same gradually increasing intensity. The results: Subjects in the high-dose vodka group zapped their nonexistent opponents with stronger shocks and were much more likely to repeatedly select the highest possible voltage. In post-test questioning, the high-dose vodka group was also more likely to impute hostility to the opponent than the low-dose group, whereas the high-dose bourbon group was less prone than the low-dose group to describe the opponent as hostile.
• In a McGill University study (Murdoch and Pihl, 1988), surveyors went out to Montreal bars, identified 38 men who had been drinking either beer or liquor exclusively, and then had confederates—posing as fellow patrons but wired for sound—bother the men with a scripted sequence of four mildly onerous requests (for the time, change for a dollar, a piece of paper to write on, and directions to a made-up street). Adjusting for estimated blood alcohol level, the researchers found that the liquor drinkers tended to become more aggressive in their responses as the interaction ensued, while the beer drinkers maintained a more even keel.
• Swedish social scientist Roland Gustafson fired up the aggression machine again for a 1999 study. This time 90 subjects (again all male) were given beer, red wine, vodka and tonic, or a nonalcoholic placebo version of one of these drinks. Again, hard-liquor consumption correlated with aggression: The vodka drinkers subjected their fictitious opponents to stronger and longer-lasting shocks than the beer and wine drinkers did. But the placebo vodka had the same effect—subjects who merely thought they’d drunk a significant quantity of vodka scored as more aggressive than those who actually had drunk beer or wine.
What does all this tell us? Unclear. Lots of factors—how fast you drink, whether the drink is carbonated, etc—can affect how alcohol makes it into your system and thus how it affects you. It’s also possible that the secondary chemicals (i.e., besides the alcohol itself) that give different alcoholic beverages their distinct qualities—they’re called congeners—have pharmacological properties that account for the disparities in aggressive behavior. But this wouldn’t account for the placebo effect discussed above. Gustafson and others suggest that drinkers may expect to be affected by different drinks in different ways, then behave in accordance with their expectations. So it may be that gin makes you mean, but drinking gin may also provide an opportunity to act mean.
A friend of mine told me that if I “drank” alcohol through my arse that I would get drunk really quickly and on far less alcohol. Can this be true? If so, how come you never see people doing handstands with a bottle stuck up their arse? —D.B., Ireland
Well, a big reason one rarely sees such a sight is that enemas have the potential to get messy enough without getting all Cirque du Soleil about it. But another is that even when administered in a more controlled fashion, alcohol enemas are potentially lethal. (Some of you may recall an unfortunate Texas case involving several liters of sherry.) Ethanol can be absorbed very quickly through the intestinal walls, so bypassing the normal ingestion route may mean getting a lot more to drink than you bargained for.
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