Why Alcohol Consumption Can Lead to Aggressive Behavior

alcoholIt is well known that there is an association between alcohol consumption and physical aggression. This happens in part because alcohol can produce aggression, but also in part because many violent people drink a lot.

Several theories have been put forward to explain why alcohol can lead to aggressive behavior. According to the anxiolysis-disinhibition model (e.g., Sayette, 1993), alcohol leads to aggression because it reduces anxiety. When people are sober, they are inhibited from behaving aggressively by anxieties about retaliation and the social disapproval of others.

Steele and Josephs (1990) proposed the inhibition conflict model. According to this model, sober individuals experience inhibition conflict. The essence of inhibition conflict is that there are cues (e.g., provocation) leading to aggressive behavior, but this behavior is inhibited by other cues (e.g., the presence of witnesses, social norms). Individuals who have consumed alcohol attend to a narrower range of cues, and are less likely to experience inhibition conflict. More specifically, they typically attend to the provoking situation or person, and ignore the inhibiting cues. As a result, they behave aggressively.


Ito, Miller, and Polack (1996) carried out a meta-analysis of 49 studies on alcohol and aggression, and reported a moderated effect of alcohol on aggressive behavior. Their findings provided some support for both models. We will start with the anxiolysis-disinhibition model, according to which alcohol reduces anxiety (shown by Gray, 1982), making people more aggressive. It follows from the model that alcohol should have more effect when there are strong anxiety-provoking cues in the situation than when there are not. As predicted, the tendency for intoxicated individuals to be more aggressive than sober ones was greatest in the presence of intense anxiety provoking-cues.

According to the inhibition conflict model, intoxicated people are more aggressive than sober individuals because they are less responsive to inhibition conflict. As predicted, alcohol led to increased aggression, especially in situations involving in high level oh inhibition conflict. It is assumed within a theory that there will be little aggression when individuals have consumed low levels of alcohol and inhibition conflict is low. However, Ito et al. (1996) found increased aggression in those circumstances.

Zeichner, Pihl, Niaura, and Zacchia (1982) obtained evidence that was more consistent with the anxiolysis-disinhibition model than with the inhibition conflict model. Participants who had or had not consumed alcohol were told they could shock another person, but that person could retaliate by administering irritating noise to the participants. In the key condition, the participants had to write down after each trial the level of shock they had delivered and the level of noise they received back. The situation was arranged so that the level of noise they increased in line with any increase in shock level.

What would be predicated by the two models? According to the inhibition conflict model, focusing intoxicating participants to attend to the negative consequences of their aggressive behavior should make them focus on these inhibiting cues, and so reduce their level of aggression. According to the anxiolysis-disinhibition model, these inhibiting cues should not create anxiety in intoxicated participants, and so alcohol should produce the usual increase in aggressive behavior. The findings supported this prediction rather than that of the inhibition conflict model.

Source: “Alcohol and Aggression,” from Psychology: An International Perspective, by Michael W. Eyesenck

Photo courtesy of The Blue Boy

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