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Chapter 10

May conventional wisdom be changed?

  1. Separating alcohol use from disinhibition
  2. Putting theory into practice
  3. Altered expectations give altered experiences

Separating alcohol use from disinhibition

American alcohol researchers have discussed the possibility of changing public belief on alcohol.

 Alan Lang, a professor of psychology in Florida, says:1

"The obvious first step is to inform people of the prepotent role of cultural beliefs in the drinking-disinhibition link. Research subjects and the general public alike always seem astounded to learn of the expectancy effect or to hear about cultures where consuming alcohol does not lead to greater expressions of aggression or sexuality. Next, our laws as well as our informal reactions to the deviant behavior of drinkers need to reflect a new intolerance of undesirable disinhibitions, and hence enforce individual responsibility for those actions we disdain."
This has also been suggested by anthropologists.2, 3

In a paper on alcohol as an instrument of intimate domination, the sociologist Robin Room concludes:4

"... the link between alcohol and violence is a matter of cultural belief rather than pharmacological action. With this premise, it is possible to embark on a strategy of cultural redefinition of the meaning of alcohol: that alcohol is not to be seen as an explanation of violence. If the power of alcohol as an instrument of domination is the power of a cultural belief that it causes violence, that power exists only so long as we go on believing in its power and acting and reacting on that basis.

 To change this belief involves undoing one of the most durable conceptual legacies of the temperance movement, and it is no light undertaking. By now the power of alcohol to make a person mean, vicious and violent is deeply entrenched in song, story and consciousness. Such a redefinition is thus a matter for a sustained campaign of consciousness-changing, and not for a season of thirty-second television spots. But in the long run, such a strategy may be the most effective and socially desirable means of removing alcohol's power as an instrument of intimate domination."

As stated by Room, there are immense impediments. Where people believe that alcohol as such removes inhibitions, intoxication becomes a mitigating circumstance and disinhibition does, in fact, take place. The idea "prooves" itself.

So while research on intoxicant effects may be highly interesting from a theoretical point of view, it may well be maintained that reducing the level of consumption is a more reliable method for reducing problems than diminishing people's motives for drinking, at least at short sight.


Putting theory into practice

Alan Lang and one of his co-workers recently wrote:5
"From the point of view of prevention and resolution of alcohol problems, the demonstrated importance of expectancies may provide reason for optimism. After all, it is probably easier to change what people believe and will tolerate about drinking than it is to change their physiological reactions to it."
In Sri Lanka, the psychiatrist Diyanath Samarasinghe is leading an alcohol education program which has recently been described in an article in the World Health Forum.6

While the aforementioned American researchers only contemplated altering public belief on the link between alcohol and disinhibited behavior, the Sri Lankan program aims at a more comprehensive demystification of drugs, involving such beliefs as those which hold that the drug experience is inherently pleasurable, mood elevating, relaxing, and helpful in making people more sociable.

The program trains young persons who are interested in working in drug prevention. They then conduct activities in their village or other local area, reporting back for review and redirection.

At the start of the training, participants are asked how much of the perceived positive effects is produced by alcohol itself and how much by the social environment, rituals, beliefs and expectations surrounding the use. Attention is called to the contradictions in the conventional wisdom (chapter 4).

Through discussions, participants find out that alcohol itself seems to play a minor role in producing good mood and relaxation and that alcohol-induced violence is mostly directed towards weaker victims, not striking at random.

The participants are told that initially alcohol consumption is not in itself pleasurable, apart from its symbolic and social value, until the socializing group makes it so by training the novice over many occasions.


"The next session focusses on the possibility of modifying the social rules governing alcohol-induced behaviour. Participants are encouraged to see that a relaxation of strict social regulations is in itself very enjoyable, whether after drinking alcohol or otherwise. They are then engaged in a discussion of the desirability of continuing to limit this relaxation of social norms to just the drunken state. It is explained to them that changing the social image of alcohol as a magical or glamorous substance would help in reducing the desire of young persons to experiment with it. It is also pointed out that, in nearly all instances of young people trying out alcohol or other drugs, the so-called experiments are conducted with a group of friends who ensure that the novice feels positive enough to try it again, even if the sensations generated purely by the drugs were by themselves quite unpleasant."
Finally, participants are given the challenge of changing the social perceptions regarding alcohol in their own village or other local area. The campaign actually has the form of an idea, which can spread from person to person, irrespective of whether they are against alcohol, in favor, or neutral.

Altered expectations give altered experiences

Dr. Samarasinghe's program is relatively young and still awaits formal evaluation, but interesting results are reported. Changes in drunken comportment and subjective effects after alcohol use have been unequivocally reported to result.

Although the program primarily aims at reducing alcohol and drug use, a most interesting side-effect is that the program seems to bring about a definitive confirmation of its own theoretical basis.

Participants who then have taken alcohol, have reported that the experience was either unpleasant or inconsequential. Several previous social drinkers, who had begun more carefully to examine the effects of alcohol on themselves, have after a time given up alcohol use as they reportedly then discovered that the effects were not pleasant.

In a few locations, the campaigners have already begun to produce small changes in the response to alcohol use and drunk behavior in the wider community around them.

Sri Lanka is a the third world country where a large proportion of the population are not alcohol users. Mass media are less influential than in the Western world. Consequently, conventional wisdom on drug effects is less deeply entrenched. Therefore, educating people on the basis of research may be easier to perform than in the industrialized countries. Still, the experiment in Sri Lanka demonstrates that altering expectations and correcting misconceptions is, indeed, a feasible approach.

In the end, superstition, depicting alcohol and other drugs as having magical properties, will probably have to be eradicated. In the famous words of Abraham Lincoln:

"You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time."

1. Lang,AR (1983): Drinking and Disinhibition: Contributions From Psychological Research. Pp.48-90in Room,R & Collins,G(eds.): Alcohol and Disinhibition.Nature and Meaning of the link. Research Monograph No.12, NIAAA, Rockville, Md.

2. MacAndrew,C (1983): Commentary. Pp. 212-213 in Room,R& Collins,G (eds):Alcohol and Disinhibition. Nature and Meaning of the link.Research Monograph No.12, NIAAA, Rockville, Md.

3. Heath,D (1983): Alcohol and Aggression. Pp.89-103 in Gottheil,Eet al (eds.): Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Aggression. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois.

4. Room,R(1980): Alcohol as an Instrument of Intimate Domination. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Studies of Social Problems, NYC.

5. Lang,AR & Michalec,EM (1990): Expectancy effects in reinforcement from alcohol. Pp.193-232 in Cox,WM (ed.): Why People Drink. Parameters of Alcohol as a Reinforcer. Gardiner Press, Inc., New York.

6. Samarasinghe,D (1992): Removing the Magic of Drugs. World Health Forum, 13:368-371.

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