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Chapter 2

Intoxication as alibi for performances

  1. The social psychology of intoxication
  2. Explaining behavior and performances
  3. The attractiveness of self-handicapping: Principles
  4. The attractiveness of self-handicapping: Examples
  5. Intoxicants as tranquilizers: Principles
  6. Intoxicants as tranquilizers: Examples

The social psychology of intoxication

Ordinarily, the effects which chemical substances have upon human beings conform to a certain pattern: Popular belief on drugs of abuse differs sharply from this general pattern.

A countless number of different effects are attributed to intoxicants. The effects apparently vary infinitely from individual to individual and from one occasion to another. "Well, that's how it affects me", people say. Any feeling and all kinds of behavior are attributed to these substances.

The effects which are attributed to intoxicants, are highly contradictory:1

People may "become" anything from an intoxicant. When marijuana users are interviewed on the effects of their intoxicant, they respond with the same kind of contradictory effects as alcohol drinkers do.2, 3, 4 , 5

The idea that certain chemical substances can cause any type of behavior or feelings, has the quality of a social convention, which might be labeled "the convention of intoxicants".

The role of intoxication as an apparent explanation for any behavior and any emotion is a common characteristic of all drugs of abuse. The first man who alleged that this is a decisive aspect of the abuse of drugs, was the Austrian Alfred Adler. He is one of the founders of psychology, who especially stressed the importance of self-esteem in psychology. Adler introduced the term "inferiority complex".

Adler called attention to the fact that intoxicants offer escape from personal accountability by locating the responsibility outside the person. The individual may utilize intoxicants to maintain a better self image than his behavior and performances indicate.6

For several years, Adler's analysis was largely ignored. Half a century later, his analysis was elaborated by others.

Explaining behavior and performances

The American psychologists who further developed Alfred Adler's analysis of self-intoxication, were interested in people's attribution of behavior and performances.7 As a general rule, we consider behavior to reflect the personal qualities of the individual. But exceptions do exist.

There are sometimes special circumstances to which we attribute inadequate behavior and poor performance: fatigue or illness, bad companions, faulty equipment, immaturity or senility, over-exertion or lack of effort.

Such factors are not merely explanations we use after an event has taken place. When these special circumstances are present, they can strongly influence the behavior of the individual.

The opportunity to explain and justify behavior can be used in three different ways:

  1. As an alibi for bad performance. We often attribute our lack of success to some kind of handicap: "I failed my exam. But I was in bad shape that day, and I didn't feel well, had a headache after a bad night's sleep." These kinds of explanations are especially familiar after sports competitions.
  2. To avoid doing one's duties. A mild headache may be welcome when we are expected to perform annoying obligations.
  3. To transgress norms. All human beings have fantasies and impulses which are not converted to actions. The reason for not doing these things is mainly out of regard for one's self-image or one's reputation. If opportunities exist at explaining away the behavior, more of the forbidden impulses are bound to be converted into actions.
These are universal mechanisms in human functioning. We all utilize such attributions in order to maintain our self-image and reputation.8 Studies have demonstrated that people tend to attribute their own success to personal characteristics, whereas unsuccessful or unaccepted actions in most cases are attributed to external factors.

Most of the extenuating circumstances cannot be evoked upon request. Intoxication is the circumstance which one can be acquired whenever it may be needed. The object of attribution can be obtained under cover of respectable pretexts: "to get in a good mood", "thirsty", "forget your problems", "relax", "have a little fun".

The attractiveness of self-handicapping: Principles

A fundamental contribution to the understanding of self-intoxication was given by the social psychologists Steven Berglas at Harvard University and Edward E. Jones at Princeton University.9 They claimed that human beings actively arrange the circumstances so as to protect their conception of themselves as competent, intelligent persons. Objects of attribution may be utilized for this purpose.
When the chess player Deschapelles no longer felt sure of winning his games, he demanded every opponent should have the advantage of one extra move and a pawn more than himself.

 Thus, he established a situation in which he might lose the game, but not harm his self-image or reputation. Having an obvious handicap, he could well stand defeat and would receive extra credit if he won the game.

Berglas and Jones drew attention to the fact that alcohol reduces the individual's responsibility for his performance. Steady drinking fits nicely into phantasies about how well one will be able to perform when drinking stops (or would have been able to if the drinking stopped - it may be too hazardous to try!). The theory was experimentally tested.10
One hundred and eleven participants were divided into groups, performing tasks of different levels of difficulty. They were offered a drug which allegedly impaired their performances.

 Among the men who were given difficult tasks, the majority chose to take the drug which was assumed to give them a handicap.

The report concludes that use of narcotic drugs and alcohol may be motivated by the wish to protect the self-image against the acknowledgement of defeat. This conclusion was later supported in an experiment carried out by other psychologists.
Ninety-six participants were offered the choice of alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages, while trying to solve different tasks.

 Those who were given tasks which they could easily solve, seldom chose alcohol. But those who received tasks that were impossible to solve, often chose to take alcoholic beverages.

The experiment was published under the title "Alcohol as a Self-Handicapping Strategy". Intoxicants may be used as an unconscious strategy to join the category of handicapped people, for whom judgment is milder than usual.

Later on, several more experiments have shown the phenomenon of self-handicapping.12, 13 , 14, 15 , 16, 17 , 18, 19 Self-handicapping has now become a topic of research in several countries. It all started with research on the usefulness of intoxicants for the purpose of self-handicapping, and especially alcohol still has a central place in self-handicapping.20

There is now abundant evidence that has given empirical evidence for the hypothesis:

When faced with the threat of failure, acquiring a handicap which can serve as an explanation is very attractive. In case of success, the honor increases when success is achieved in spite of the handicap. Intoxicants are often employed for this purpose.

The attractiveness of self-handicapping: Examples

We may hear some people say:
"I cannot dance well. Therefore, I always drink before dancing."
The statement may seem paradoxical: Everyone knows that alcohol impairs the co-ordination of arms and legs. But for the handicapped, it is not as embarrassing to dance poorly. In that case, the performance is not due to the person's poor abilities, but to the effects of the drug.

The subjective feeling is that the drug "increases self-confidence" or "relieves anxiety".

A 20 year old girl is remarkably eager to be labeled a "drug addict". When confronted about this attitude, she says:

"I have to be an addict. For otherwise I am nothing, just a nobody with poor school records whom no one will employ."
Social outcasts and homeless people continue using intoxicants while seemingly having every reason to abstain - they only become sick, sad and broke. Self-handicapping is a major motive for their alcohol and drug use. Jones and Berglas pointed out how use of intoxicants may sustain an illusion of being successful if not for drugs, so that the individual can maintain the idea that he would otherwise perform well.

Skid-row groups in larger cities gather around alcohol use as their common ritual. In the same way, deviant youth gather around the use of illegal drugs, like other social groups gather around other collective activities. But it is hardly a coincidence that socially deviant groups select intoxicants for major rituals.

Individuals can hardly "drop out of the race" and disengage themselves from society's ordinary way of life (having a job, home, and an orderly life) without chemical intoxication which in a way justifies and legitimizes this kind of life-style. To stop intoxicating oneself means to take over the full responsibility for the situation.

A "special circumstance" can also be useful when an individual faces impossible obligations:

A lorry-owner is presently a client at a half-way house. He says: "Tell me why I drink. I find the taste of beer disgusting, and it only gives me unpleasant and sad feelings. I abstain easily when my job functions well. But when bills start pouring in, I become threatened with distraint and my wife is in despair, I start binge drinking."
Nobody expects him to fulfil his obligations while he is making use of society's offer to be spared from responsibility. In order to treat his "alcoholism", the social welfare office helps him to rescue his business.

While at a psychiatric house call, I observed intoxication as a defence against a another kind of failure:

A man in his fifties is married to a woman who is ten year younger. After some years of marriage, his sexual desire and ability declines, making him feel that his wife is persistently bothering him with demanding expectations. As time goes by, he starts drinking every day after work. This effectively removes the expectations and demands of his spouse, who instead starts criticizing his drinking. Talking with him reveals that he perceives the criticism of drinking as far less humiliating than having his lack of sexual desire and potency exposed.
Our culture attaches a strong symbolic value to a man's sexual prowess. That is why this man prefers to "have a drinking problem". A similar case has been described by American psychiatrists.21

Intoxicants as tranquilizers: Principles

Research largely does not support the idea that alcohol has anxiety-reducing properties (chapter 6). How, then, can we understand the commonly held assumption that alcohol, marijuana and other drugs of abuse reduce anxiety?

The social psychologists Berglas and Jones were the first to point out that the reduction of anxiety has a plain and obvious psychological explanation.9 Social anxiety usually means fear of attracting negative attention, "making a fool of oneself". There are less reasons for fear in the presence of a handicap, to which failure can be attributed.

An earlier experiment supported this view:22

Persons who scored high on performance anxiety were given a drug which allegedly reduced their skills, but in reality was a placebo (inactive) substance. Testing showed that the participants' belief that they were handicapped enhanced their performances.
This outcome was seen as a proof that energy which had been used to control performance anxiety, was liberated for the tasks which were to be performed.

A study of marijuana users showed that individuals with low self-esteem often felt they became more extrovert and spontaneous when smoking marijuana.23

At the University of Wisconsin, an experiment demonstrated the effect upon young men's fear when encountering the opposite sex.24

Sixty four male students were told that they participated in a taste test, unaware that their consumption of beverage was recorded. One half of them were told that they afterwards were going to encounter a group of young women, whose task was to rate the attractiveness of the young men.

The young men who were told that they were going to be evaluated by young females, consumed nearly double the quantity compared with the others.

When research had largely undermined the widely held theory that alcohol has a pharmacological anxiety-reducing effect, it left us with a need for understanding common subjective experiences of intoxication. This was solved by understanding the psychological mechanisms involved in attribution of failures.

Apparently, even minimal amounts of alcohol can reduce tension and anxiety. In American soap operas, the actors often take a drink when they feel a little upset. This seems to reduce anxiety even without a feeling of intoxication. How can this happen?

Because the social role of being an intoxicated (handicapped) person clearly reduces social anxiety, intoxicants have a reputation for being effective sedatives. Placebo experiments (chapter 4) demonstrate that when people expect reduction of anxiety, in most cases they experience it. Intoxicants are hardly an exception. In TV series, the anxiety-reducing effects of a drink seem to take place immediately after consumption, long before alcohol has reached the central nervous system. This evidently shows that expectancy and learned effects are active.

Intoxicants as tranquilizers: Examples

The author Henrik Ibsen gives an example in his most famous play "Peer Gynt":
Peer is on his way to the planned wedding of his former lover Ingrid, and he is hoping to prevent the wedding ceremony. Suddenly he stops, feeling fear and anxiety. Maybe I am just going to make a fool of myself? Then he starts pondering a way out:

"If I just had a strong drink. Or if I might do it discretely. Or if the wedding guests didn't recognize me. A strong drink would be the best thing - for then, the laughter would not offend me."

Why does Peer perceive the laughter as less offensive if he has had a strong drink?

If he is sober, people will laugh at his personal traits: "What a stupid guy he is!"

But if he has been drinking, people will laugh at how intoxication can transform a man: "How stupid people can behave after drinking!" In that case, they do not laugh at his own personal characteristics.

Therefore, he feels the beverage increases his courage and relieves his anxiety.

 Some people with low self-esteem project their self-criticism to their surroundings and feel other people have a critical attitude (which they in reality do not have). A teenage girl having this problem, declares:

"When I'm walking in the streets without having smoked hashish, I become paranoid and feel that people are staring at me with critical eyes."
The poor girl feels she is inferior and deviant. But to appear inferior and deviant when the intoxicant has inflicted a handicap upon her, does not mean that she herself is really inferior and deviant. Her subjective experience is that her intoxicant is a tranquilizer.

A skid-row alcoholic who is 30 years old, tells me:

"I dare not talk to people when sober. I'm afraid of appearing stupid."
Does he believe his talking is more intelligent and wise after drinking alcohol? Probably not. But appearing stupid while intoxicated is not perceived as really being stupid. Anyone says stupid things when under the influence, of course ...

A woman reports:

"I never start flirting without drinking."
The fact that this quote is from a woman, may perhaps reflect that women more freely admit these kinds of feelings. The strategy is, however, more frequently applied by men. If young men stopped using alcohol for this purpose, the breweries would have a hard time.

In case of being refused, taking the initiative can be explained away, as the individual was not accountable for it: "People do a lot of weird things when they are drunk." The rejection can also be attributed to intoxication: "She wasn't interested because I was drunk."

The self-chosen handicap not only reduces fear of flirtation, but also relieves performance anxiety prior to sexual activities. A teenage girl remarks:

"We both felt insecure and embarrassed and never slept together without taking drugs. If I didn't get exited, I said "I was stoned, you know ..." - and he said the same thing if he could not make it."


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