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Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 12:11 am

The sum of his beers

Amy Alkon
I’ve been with my boyfriend for nine months. We are both in our late 20s and go out drinking a lot with our friends. I’ve noticed that when he’s drunk, he’ll be super affectionate and say really gushy things about me, our getting married, etc. Are his true feelings coming out, or is he just talking lovey-dovey because of the booze? – Bridal Hopes

The reality is, research on drinking’s effects on personality by clinical psychologist Rachel Winograd finds that beyond one area of personality – extroversion, which increases slightly in drunken people – we’re all pretty much the same jerks (or whatever) that we are when we’re sober.

This consistency that Winograd and her colleagues observe makes sense vis-a-vis how psychologists find that personality has a strong genetic component and involves habitual patterns of thoughts, feelings and behavior. And though the Winograd team did find a small increase in extroversion, a body of research finds that personality traits are largely consistent across time and situations.

According to research by social psychologists Claude M. Steele and Robert A. Josephs, the behavioral changes of drunken excess appear to be caused not by alcohol itself but by alcohol-driven changes in perception that they call “alcohol myopia.” Alcohol appears to restrict attention, giving a person a sort of tunnel vision for whatever’s right in front of them.

Interestingly, the research on alcohol myopia debunks a widely believed myth – the assumption that getting drunk will necessarily lead a person to be much less inhibited. It may, but it may also lead the other way – to increased inhibition and less risk taking.

A fascinating example of this comes from field research by psychologist Tara MacDonald and her colleagues. Patrons entering a bar got their hands stamped – seemingly just to allow them to re-enter without standing in line again. Some had their hands stamped with the ominous warning (within a little circle) “AIDS KILLS.” Others got a circle containing the nebulous statement “SAFE SEX” or – in the control group – a smiley face. The 372 hand-stamped participants were later divided into two groups based on blood alcohol level. (Those with a blood alcohol level that was .08 percent or above were the “intoxicated group.”)

The researchers found that the “intoxicated” people with the smiley or “SAFE SEX” stamp were more likely than sober participants to have sex without a condom. However, intoxicated people with the fear-inducing “AIDS KILLS” message expressed less willingness to have unprotected sex than even sober people the researchers surveyed. This is right in line with how alcohol leads to “tunnel vision” that makes whatever’s right in front of a person especially prominent.

Getting back to your boyfriend’s drunken mushygushies, consider how the tunnel vision of alcohol myopia likely plays out for him as he looks at you in the moment at the bar: “She’s so sparkly and nice …” What’s missing, however, is all the adult complexity – all that “on the other hand …” thinking that he’d likely do in more sober moments: whether you two can make it as lifelong partners, whether he’s up for creating little people who’d call him Daddy, etc. In other words, there’s probably some stuff he still needs to figure out.

© 2017, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail AdviceAmy@aol.com (advicegoddess.com). Weekly radio show: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon


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