Behavioral Changes Under the Influence of Alcohol

     While not every patron who enters a bar will have a drink, the consumption of alcohol is a big part of the bar scene.  Alcoholic beverages contribute a large part, if not the majority, of the income of many bars.  The effects of alcohol vary from person to person and with different amounts.  The number of drinks that constitute being “drunk” for one person may have little effect on another.  Also varying are the changes in behavior that one undergoes when under the influence of alcohol.  A person may behave in a way that is quite unlike their usual personality.  Someone who is usually calm and collected may become easily enraged and upset or vice versa.  Sometimes the effects are more subtle.  Someone may simply become quite and withdrawn.  Often these changes are not necessarily dangerous or problematic, but there are times when they certainly can be.  Some of the more serious changes may be things like violent tendencies, lack in ability to make good or safe decisions, or lack of use of protection when engaging in sexual situations.  Studies have been done on each of these circumstances.

    People often drink to relax, to gain confidence, or to be at ease in social situations.  The problem with this thinking is that while alcohol may in fact be able to provide some of these benefits, it also can cause the exact opposite.  Studies show that alcohol intoxication can make us frighteningly aggressive (e.g., Zeichner & Phil, 1979, 1980) yet more altruistic (e.g., Steele, Critchlow, & Liu, 1985); it can relieve stressful anxiety and tension (e.g., Levenson, Sher, Grossman, Newman, & Newlin, 1980; Polivy, Schueneman, & Carlson, 1976) yet also increase anxiety and tension (e.g., Abrams & Wilson, 1979; Keane & Lisman, 1980); it can inflate our egos (e.g., Banaji & Steele, 1989) yet lead to “crying-in-one’s beer” depression (e.g., Josephs & Steele, 1990; Steele & Josephs, 1988); and so on (Steele & Josephs, 1990).

     Every time alcohol is consumed, in every person, perception and thought are generally impaired.  Research has shown that alcohol intoxication impairs nearly every aspect of information processing: the ability to abstract and conceptualize, the ability to encode large numbers of situational cues, the ability to use several cues at the same time, the use of the active and systematic encoding strategies, the cognitive elaboration needed to encode meaning from incoming information, and so on (Steele & Josephs, 1990).  We may respond more extremely to a situation because alcohol prevents us from using the cues that would inhibit a response.

     The consumption of alcohol may radically alter both one’s ability and one’s motivation to process information regarding sexual risk (Murphy, Monahan, & Miller, 1998).  Alcohol intoxication can decrease one’s ability to consider the consequences of their actions and it can also lower inhibitions about sexual behaviors.  Often times, alcohol plays the role of scapegoat.  Irresponsible actions can be blamed on the amount of alcohol that was consumed.
In general, studies have shown that people who regularly consume alcohol or use drugs are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior (MacDonald, Zanna, & Fong, 1996).  Leigh and Morrison (1991) report that 50% of both male and female adolescents had been drinking at the time of their first sexual experience.  Alcohol intoxication at the time of first sexual intercourse is associated with a decrease in condom use (Robertson & Plant, 1988).  Under the influence of alcohol, people often make the poor decision to engage in sexual activity with someone they may not know and then make the even worse decision not to use protection.  Judgement is impaired and many consequences may follow.

Beginning Page

Group Dynamics

Lying and Deception

Alcohol-Induced Behavior


This tutorial was produced for Psy 324, Advanced Social Psychology, Spring 2000 at Miami University.  All graphics are from the public domain, used with permission, or were created by the authors. Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA).   Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 16:49:50. This document has been accessed 8,587times since 1 May 2000. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman