Thursday 13 October 2011

Drunken disorder - all in the mind

When I was a student, it used to interest me seeing how the various student tribes handled their drink.  At the extremes, the PE students would all sit around in track suits singing rugby songs - I got fed up of hearing the tedious and rambling misfortunes of Constable Peckham - and the drama students would become even more luvvy-ish than usual.  The politicos would sit in corners to talk about the latest international trouble spot, say things like, "It's all happening in Nicaragua", and sup their Greenall Whitley while waiting for the revolution.

If the media caricature of the effects of alcohol had any basis in reality, there shouldn't have been these marked differences in behaviour and instead you'd expect a lot of trouble and fighting, but in fact that was rare.  I formed the view a long time ago that people develop certain habits about drinking quite early on and tend to stick with them, meaning that a lager lout of 20 years ago may well be a saga lout in 20 years' time. 
Kate Fox

I was therefore interested to see this notion supported in an article by social anthropologist Kate Fox, who says:  "The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol."  In other words, if we think we should get aggressive after drinking, then that's what will happen.  Similarly, if we think we should get flirty, then that will happen too, and so on. 

I do recall reading in the 1970s that some researchers asked young lager drinkers to take part in a bogus study and their reward was as much tinned lager as they wanted, which of course was the real research. The drinkers didn't know the lager was alcohol-free and they began to behave as though they were getting drunk.

Kate Fox explains why all our alcohol education programmes are self-defeating - the old Law of Unintended Consequences again - and asserts: "If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem - a nation in which young people would binge-drink coffee every Friday and Saturday night and then rampage around town centres being anti-social, getting into fights and having unprotected sex in random one-night stands."  She then tells us how she'd do this - it's quite funny, but utterly credible.

Her article also prompts the thought that the excessive penalties heaped upon the heads of licensees who serve under age drinkers only prevent young people from developing acceptable patterns of behaviour in controlled environments, instead sending them to shape their own drinking habits with the help of super-strength lagers, ciders and vodka, heavily influenced by hysterical and inaccurate propaganda about the effects of booze on behaviour.  That old law again.
I wonder if the pretend charity Alcohol Concern has read her article?  I doubt they'd want to because in around 1400 words she completely demolishes their entire strategy, which is almost completely funded by public money - now even more obviously a complete waste, especially in the current economic climate.


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