Most of us have been there. We’ve had a few drinks and our group is behaving a little on the rowdy side, but we know we need to act sober if we want to buy a drink at the bar or enter a new one.
At anything less that the highest levels of intoxication, most of us can slip into gear and present a very credible sober act when we need to.
On the other hand, very few of us will ever commit violent or anti-social acts regardless of how intoxicated we are.
I have seen these phenomena consistently during my 20 years as an anthropologist researching drinking cultures and saw them once again in New Zealand when I was lucky enough to spend a portion of 2013 studying the local drivers of violence and anti-social behaviour in the night-time economy.
One of the strongest and most universal beliefs we encountered in our research among adult New Zealanders is in alcohol’s transformational powers. A belief in the ‘disinhibiting’ power of alcohol runs through New Zealand society from the youngest to the oldest.
Although conclusive evidence to the contrary exists, many New Zealanders still believe that alcohol has the power to hijack their better natures, control their thinking and make them do crazy and stupid things.
Any study of contemporary and historic societies proves pretty quickly this is nonsense. In many other countries, it is acknowledged drinkers can control their behaviour, even when severely inebriated. In Japan, for example, even though heavy consumption is widely tolerated, overtly drunken or anti-social behaviour is not, and drinkers seem to be quite capable of conforming to this prevalent norm.
Likewise, Cuban men generally pride themselves on control when drinking, with loss of control of faculties carrying significant social stigma.
The Danes are famously harmonious and peaceful despite high levels of binge drinking. In Nigeria, the more a man consumes and remains sober, the more respect he gains.
The phrase “it loosens, or takes away, your inhibitions” is like a magical spell that releases drinkers from the normal rules of behaviour. But just because alcohol can help people relax and reduces anxiety does not mean it causes damaging changes in behaviour or character or blocks impulse control.
We can see this in the fact that the social rules of alcoholic disinhibition allow for certain behaviours but not others. No one becomes so disinhibited and ‘out of control’ that they steal or pickpocket from others, for example, as most people would not excuse theft because the person was drunk. But taking off ones clothes, urinating (but not defecating), shouting, fighting, singing, flirting, and even going home with the ‘wrong’ person – are all blamed on the drink.
I do not deny that alcohol does have some very definite physiological effects and these are fully acknowledged in my paper. At high doses, it is easy to see that the physical effects of alcohol can incapacitate all drinkers, regardless of cultural differences.
But, based on decades of research in the field and more recently in New Zealand, I am convinced that these physiological effects in no way determine a behavioural response.
Alcohol does not hijack your moral compass, but is a symbol that gives people a social licence to behave in an uninhibited way.
If alcohol alone made people violent we would expect to find similar levels of violence spread evenly across the full range of drinkers from post-menopausal librarians to young male rugby players, but we don’t. We would also expect to see and equal incidence of violence in all societies, and again, we don’t.
This proves to me that, given the right incentives and consequences, New Zealand can substantially reduce the incidence of violence and anti-social behaviour in its night-time economy.
In a nutshell, the central point of my report is that it’s the wider culture that determines the behaviour whilst drinking, not the drinking per se. While there are very good health reasons to reduce excessive drinking, you must influence culture if you want to change behaviour.
The way to tackle the real underlying causes of anti-social behaviour is to address the cultural reinforcers of violence, misogyny, and aggressive masculinity in all its cultural expressions from schoolyards to sports fields, politics and pubs, movies and media.
New Zealand needs to change perceptions of what behaviour is socially acceptable while intoxicated and create a genuine fear of stigma for breaking the new rules.
It also needs to ensure effective identification and direct intervention to tackle the behaviour of the minority of New Zealanders exhibiting a pre-disposition to violence and a reduction in situational cues that trigger their behaviour.
Overall, the only effective message that might control negative or extremely anti-social or violent drinking behaviour is: “You are in control of your behaviour at all times. Drunkenness is no excuse.”
But to achieve cultural shift, this must be followed by realistic consequences such as significant social stigma, fines and other sanctions for bad behaviour. Cultural change and a reduction in offences will come when drinking is no longer the issue but bad behaviour is and when that bad behaviour brings with it social disgrace, as has occurred with drink driving.