A Personality Trait Magnifies Drunken Aggression

Younger people are more likely to be social drinkers.
Younger people are more likely to be social drinkers, and less likely to consider their actions in light of future consequences. Spring breakers drink tequila on a beach in Cancun in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo March 26, 2010. Gerardo Garcia/ Reuters

Drinking enough alcohol can greatly increase aggression in people possessing a particular personality trait while people without the trait don’t become more aggressive, according to a new study released Monday.

People who are shortsighted, or less inclined to consider the future consequences of current actions are more likely to be more aggressive when they consume enough alcohol.

"People who focus on the here and now, without thinking about the impact on the future, are more aggressive than others when they are sober, but the effect is magnified greatly when they're drunk," said Brad Bushman, lead author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University in a statement.

The study also found that people who carefully considered the consequences of their actions are unlikely to become any more aggressive than they usually are when they are under the influence of alcohol.

"Alcohol has a myopic effect -- it narrows your attention to what is important to you right now. That may be dangerous to someone who already has that tendency to ignore the future consequences of their actions and who is placed in a hostile situation," Bushman said. 

The researchers observed 495 social drinkers, with an average age of 23.  All participants completed the “Consideration of Future Consequences scale” which evaluated how present-focused or future- focused they are. 

Half of the participants were then put into the alcohol group where they received a drink that contained 20 percent alcohol, while the other half were given a drink with the rims of the glasses sprayed with alcohol so that the participants thought that they were consuming a full alcoholic beverage. 

Participants were then led to believe that they were competing with a same-sex opponent in a computer–based speed reaction test, and that each time they “lost,” with the “winner” deciding upon the intensity and length of the shot to the loser.

"The participants were led to believe they were dealing with a real jerk who got more and more nasty as the experiment continued," Bushman said. "We tried to mimic what happens in real life, in that the aggression escalated as time went on."

Researchers measure aggression by observing whether or not the participants retaliated correspondingly to the increased length and intensity of shocks that were given to them.

Bushman said that the results were clear.

“People who were present-focused and drunk shocked their opponents longer and harder than anyone else in the study," Bushman said and added that, "Alcohol didn't have much effect on the aggressiveness of people who were future-focused."

The results of the study should serve as a warning to people who live only in the moment, Bushman concluded.

"If you're that kind of person, you really should watch your drinking. Combining alcohol with a focus on the present can be a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Correcting for personality traits is hard, said Bushman.

“It’s like telling introverts to be more like extroverts, and extroverts to be more like introverts. Your personality can’t change,” he told Medical Daily, adding that being aware of it is part of the solution.

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