"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, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University and the study’s lead author. He added that those who carefully consider the consequences of their actions are unlikely to become more aggressive when drinking.
The study involved 495 adults who were social drinkers. Participants indicated how much they agreed with statements like "I only act to satisfy immediate concerns, figuring the future will take care of itself." Scores on this measure determined how much participants were present-focused or future-focused.
Half the participants were put in the alcohol group, where they received alcohol mixed with orange juice at a 1:5 ratio. The other half were given orange juice with just a tiny bit of alcohol. The rims of the glasses were also sprayed with alcohol so that they thought they were consuming a full alcoholic beverage.
Participants in the alcohol group had a mean blood alcohol level of 0.095 just before aggression was measured and 0.105 following, meaning they were legally drunk and that their alcohol levels were rising during the measurement of their aggressive behavior. Those in the placebo group had very little alcohol in their systems and were well below standards of intoxication.
What a Shock
Each participant was told that he or she was competing with a same-sex opponent in a computer-based speed reaction test, with the winner delivering an electrical shock to the loser. The winner determined the intensity and the length of the shock delivered to the loser.
In actuality, there was no opponent. There were 34 trials, and the participant "won" half of them (randomly determined). Each time they "lost," the participants received harmless but somewhat painful electric shocks that increased in length and intensity over the course of the trials – an effort to mimic the real-life scenario of aggressive escalating with time. The researchers measured if the participants retaliated in kind.
"The less people thought about the future, the more likely they were to retaliate, but especially when they were drunk. People who were present-focused and drunk shocked their opponents longer and harder than anyone else in the study," he said.
Alcohol, meanwhile, didn't have much effect on the aggressiveness of people who were future-focused.
Men were more aggressive than women overall, but the effects of alcohol and personality were similar in both sexes. In other words, women who were present-focused were still much more aggressive when drunk than were women who were future-focused, just like men.
Bushman said the results should serve as a warning to people who live only in the moment without thinking too much about the future.
"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.
The study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and from the National Center for Research Resources. Study results appear online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and will be published in a future print edition.