"Sham" Intoxication Has Real Effects

People who falsely believe that they have been consuming alcohol tend to act like people who have actually been drinking. Conversely, people who don't realize that they have been consuming alcohol tend to act like teetotalers.

Many of the effects of alcohol are a result of our expectations that it will affect us in certain ways. We learn these expectations from our society. For example, in those societies in which people don't believe that intoxication disinhibited intoxicated persons don't become disinhibited.

Research in the US has found that when males are falsely led to believe that they have been drinking alcohol, they tend to become more aggressive. And when men and women falsely believe that they have been drinking alcohol, they experience greater sexual arousal when watching erotica.

A recent study directed by Dr. Bryan Raudenbush of Wheeling Jesuit University using sham intoxication has provided additional evidence that it affects such things as memory and thinking performance.

Of course not all of alcohol's effects are based on expectations. The substance has real physiological effects -- it slows reaction time, it slows breathing and heart beat, it effects perceptions of time and distance, etc. But the fact that alcohol has these effects helps convince us that it makes us aggressive or whatever else our society teaches us that it does.

People also have more control over their drunken behavior than we generally recognize in Western society. For example, the Lepcha people of the Himalayas tend to become sexually promiscuous when intoxicated...that behavior is acceptable when drunk. But violation of the incest taboo (which extends very far and is highly complex) leads to punishment by certain death. No matter how drunk they become and how promiscuous they behave, they never violate that complex taboo. It's simple... they don't want to be executed and suffer a painful death so they control their behavior no matter how drunk they become.

Because alcohol doesn't cause bad behavior it isn't a legitimate excuse for such behavior.

In short, bad behavior isn't the fault of the alcohol but of the person.


  • Wheeling Jesuit University. "Sham" Intoxication Produces Effects to "Real" Intoxication. Wheeling, WV: Wheeling Jesuit University press release, January 31, 2006.
  • MacAndrew, C., and Edgerton, R. Drunken Comportment: a Social Explanation. Chicago, Illinois: Aldine, 1969.
  • Grattan, K. E., and Vogel-Sprott, M. Neurobiological, behavioral, and environmental relations to drinking - maintaining intentional control of behavior under alcohol, Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 2001, 25(2), 192-197.

Filed Under: Alcohol Abuse