Alcohol: The Aggression Elixir?
Peter Giancola
Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Kentucky
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There are those who argue that alcohol is a very strong "elixir" for aggressive behavior—that alcohol causes aggression. We have all known or heard about people who, when sober, are fun-loving, sociable, and well-tempered, but, after a few drinks, undergo a "transformation of personality" characterized by loudness, anger, belligerence, provocation, and sometimes violence. Research evidence tends to support the alcohol-aggression link, indicating that alcohol consumption is strongly linked to verbal aggression, aggressive threats, family violence, marital aggression, violence-related emergency-room visits, child abuse, firearm use, sexual aggression, homicide, and suicide. A well-designed study of alcohol involvement in violence found that in 40-50% of violent incidents, either the victim, the assailant, or both had been drinking (Pernanen, 1991). While there is considerable variability among studies in estimated magnitude of alcohol involvement, some suggest rates of alcohol presence at the time of offending as high as 86% for homicide offenders, 72% for robbery offenders, 60% for sexual offenders, 70% for suicide attempters, 57% for marital violence perpetrators, and 54% for child molesters (Roizen, 1993).

However, there is another side to this coin. There are also the stories of people who behave quite aggressively without the help of alcohol and those who, no matter how much they drink, will never utter an angry word or raise a hand to anyone—alcohol just seems to facilitate joviality, emotional warmth, or sleep in these people. Thus, it may be more accurate to say that alcohol is an aggression elixir only in some persons. Clearly then, the task for researchers is to determine what traits characterize persons who are most at risk for becoming violent while under the effects of alcohol. Identifying those most at risk will help better elucidate the causes of alcohol-related violence and it will also help researchers craft better prevention and treatment interventions.

Measuring the Relationship | Before attempting to delineate a "risk profile" for alcohol-related aggression, it is important to discuss some different approaches to assessing the alcohol-aggression relationship. One very well-known approach involves simply asking people about their past aggressive behavior and whether or not alcohol was involved. A number of widely used self-report and interview-type formats have been designed to record these behaviors.

A second approach, not as well known, is an in vivo assessment of the actual behavior of physical aggression. Such an assessment almost always occurs in a laboratory setting. Most studies that have measured aggression in such a manner have used the Taylor Aggression Paradigm (TAP; Taylor, 1967) the Point Subtraction Aggression Paradigm (PSAP; Cherek, 1981), or a modified version of one of these protocols. The tap involves instructing research subjects that they are competing against another, unseen person on a reaction-time task. Following a winning trial, subjects administer an electric shock to their opponent; following a losing trial, they receive a shock. In actuality, no opponent exists and the experimenter administers the shocks to the subjects according to a predetermined win/lose order. Aggression is operationalized as the average shock intensity subjects select for their opponent during an experiment. Some modified versions of the TAP also include shock duration as a measure of aggression. In the PSAP, subjects are led to believe that they are competing against another person on a task in which they can earn points that are later redeemable for money but that they also may have points taken away by their opponent. In most versions of this paradigm, subjects can either press a particular button 100 times to earn a point or press a different button 10 times to subtract a point from their opponent. Aggression is measured as the number of times the point-subtraction button is pressed. (For a full description and evaluation of these paradigms see Giancola and Chermack 1998.)

Some have argued that responses in these laboratory paradigms do not generalize to aggression in the "real world." An abundance of data shows this criticism to be wholly unfounded. The validity of these procedures has been established in numerous ways. For example, shock-level selection on the TAP correlates significantly with self-report measures of physical assault, behavioral hostility, and outwardly directed anger. That aggression rather than a related disposition or behavior is being measured is shown in the lack of correlation between shock selection and measures of guilt, suspicion, resentment, inwardly directed anger, helping, and competition. Additional data supporting the validity of these paradigms come from studies showing that adolescents whose teachers rate them high on aggressiveness are more aggressive in a version of the TAP than adolescents with low ratings. Violent offenders respond more aggressively on the PSAP than do nonviolent controls. A recent comprehensive review of studies that have used laboratory measures of aggression concluded that the TAP, the PSAP, and their modified versions are safe, effective, and valid measures of aggression for both men and women (Giancola and Chermack, 1998).

Alcohol and Aggression | A wealth of studies, in numerous laboratories in North America and in Europe, have examined the alcohol-aggression relation using the paradigms described above. This work has documented a very robust and reliable finding: Persons who are given an alcohol beverage exhibit more aggressive behavior than those who receive a nonalcohol or a placebo beverage (for review see Chermack and Giancola 1997). Placebo groups are used to rule out the possibility that it is not the pharmacological properties of alcohol that facilitate aggression but the mere belief that alcohol has been consumed. Placebo manipulations involve giving a nonalcohol beverage and then informing the drinker in a convincing way (and the credibility of the ruse can be tested) that she or he has ingested alcohol. Then, if subjects who received alcohol are more aggressive than those who received a placebo, and if those who received a placebo are no more aggressive than those who received no alcohol (and were told that they received no alcohol), it can be concluded that the belief that alcohol has been consumed plays little role in the expression of aggression.

Sketching a "Risk Profile" | In summary then, experimental data show that acute alcohol consumption, and not the belief that alcohol has been consumed, significantly increases the probability of aggressive behavior. It is not the case, however, that alcohol invariably causes aggression. Not all persons who commit an aggressive act are intoxicated, and alcohol does not lead to aggression in all persons who ingest it. In other words, alcohol is neither a necessary nor a sufficient agent in the elicitation of aggressive behavior. Rather, alcohol-related aggression is the product of individual characteristics and contextual variables interacting with alcohol pharmacodynamics.

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