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Chapter 9

Research on motives for intoxicant use - in perspective

  1. From superstition to science: demystification of intoxicants
  2. How did alcohol and other drugs become "psycho-active" drugs?
  3. Chemical hypothesis or indisputable motives?
  4. Understanding intoxicant use - is it possible?

From superstition to science: demystification of intoxicants

According to conventional wisdom, intoxicants have characteristic psychological effects and a unique ability to change the personality of human beings. This idea largely originates from an old popular belief about alcohol, which was widespread in the Western world.

This popular belief evolved at a time when people were illiterate and believed the earth was flat. While modern science has removed several old ideas, public belief on alcohol effects has changed very little. Two leading alcohol researchers at Harvard Medical School remark:1

"Empirical findings contradicting public belief on alcohol's effects on behavior, have had an imperceptible influence on attitudes to alcohol."
In our time, we tend to consider ourselves as rational creatures, basing our ideas on facts and science. Why has research had so little impact on popular ideas on intoxicants, especially on the ideas on alcohol?

Two major causes are obvious. The first is that the conventional wisdom has the quality of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Placebo research demonstrates that human beings are highly suggestible (chapter 4). Following the expectation that a substance will change mood, a change will most probably occur. In an individual's subjective experience, expectancy effects (chapter 4) cannot be distinguished from real pharmacological effects.

The belief that a substance removes inhibitions is even more self-fulfilling. If a substance is regarded as the cause of (and thus excusefor) unrestrained behavior, such behavior does occur. Conversely, in groups and societies which do not share this belief, the deviant behavior does nottake place.

Whatever the prevailing ideas are about drug effects on social behavior, they are apparently proved by living evidence in each specific society.

The second main factor which tends to sustain public belief, is the fact that the research findings are not popular in any of the two trenches.

The proponents and the opponents of an intoxicant (e.g., alcohol or marijuana) have fought persistent battles. Still, they have agreed that the intoxicant has magical effects upon the personality of human beings.

Supporters of the intoxicant have argued that the substance" tickles" a center of joy in the brain and removes anxiety like a "super-Valium". Opponents insist that the intoxicant paralyzes a "moral center" in the brain and turns the decent citizen into a ruthless scoundrel.

Those who demystify intoxicants, find themselves positioned in a no-mans-land, under fire from both camps.

Research puts intoxicants in a more ordinary position among chemical substances. Alcohol emerges as a colorless organic solvent with a boiling point of 78 degrees Celsius and a specific weight of 0.8, and little more.

In and by themselves, the chemical substances are neither magical nor mystical. Human beings endow them with symbolic meanings, employ them in rituals, and attribute supernatural abilities to them. While the chemical substances emerge as relatively neutral and colorless agents, human use of them is anything but colorless.

How did alcohol and other drugs become "psycho-active" drugs?

Accepting the research on behavioral effects of intoxicants may require a restructuring of ideas. The behavior of other people and, often, one's own behavior, may have to be reconsidered from a new perspective. And the question may arise: Why, then, were magical powers attributed to these substances?

Alcohol had entered human culture as a natural adulterant (chapter 6). How did popular belief on its behavioral effects originate?

Anthropologists have answered the question by calling attention to the fact that alcohol does, indeed, produce several unintentional events - stumbling, falling, losing or breaking things, and falling asleep.2 These involuntary happenings are due to the impairment of skills which alcohol brings about, irrespective of the society in which it occurs.

The idea is not far away that other events which take place during alcohol intoxication also occur unintentionally, even if they are not due to the reduction of skills. If this idea has gained a foothold in a society, it does, indeed, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The drugs which came into use in the 1960s, like marijuana and LSD, were marketed as drugs altering consciousness and personality. Later on, there has been an increasing tendency to attribute similar characteristics to more and more drugs - not only pain-killers, hypnotics and sedatives, but also to previously unknown, synthetic compounds.

Considering the learned character of the chemical "highs" and drug-related behavior, we can easily understand the ever increasing number of "psycho-active" drugs: Noticeable, but non-specific physiological effects indicating that "something is different", are the subject of interpretations and expectations based upon social learning. The number of substances which may potentially be perceived as "psycho-active" is virtually unlimited.

Chemical hypothesis or indisputable motives?

The pure chemical effects of intoxicants can hardly explain the motives for use. Some of the motives can be perceived as expectancy effects (chapter 4). Often, this is an insufficient explanation. For example, skid row alcoholics persist in drinking although they only seem to get broke, sick and sad.

When the conscious motives are insufficient as explanation, how can we comprehend the use?

Two alternatives seem to exist.

One is the hypothesis that future research will produce entirely different results. People insisting on chemical (instead of sociopsychological) explanations for behavior, may claim that future research will demonstrate that intoxicants "tickle" a brain center of joy and that "dependence" some day will have a chemical explanation.

Various types of evidence make the chemical hypothesis improbable. Conventional wisdom on the behavioral effects of intoxicants is so full of contradictions (chapter 4) that it hardly ever can be substantiated. As harmful intoxicant use in most cases is not continuous, "dependence" may not provide an adequate explanation).

Few, if any, substances in the world have been as thoroughly investigated as alcohol. Alcoholics may be the group of people which has been studied most extensively. Therefore, it is very difficult to maintain that future research on alcohol and alcoholism may give entirely new conclusions.

The biological explanations of intoxicant use and the behavioral effects of intoxicants, today appear to be unconfirmed hypotheses. Claiming that we know too little yet and must await future research, certainly sounds scientific. At some point of time, however, we will have to consider seriously the huge amount of research which already has been carried out, and accept the clear trends.

Understanding intoxicant use - is it possible?

Conventional wisdom, which believes in the magic properties of intoxicants, is heavily disputed by a large body of research (chapters 5 and 6). In addition, the psychological and behavioral effects of intoxicants vary so much with learning and culture, that intoxicted behavior can hardly ever be attributed to the chemical effects of the substances.

Thus, alternative explanations must be found.

We can positively state that intoxicants are used for symbolic and ritual purposes (chapter 1). Intoxication serves as an alibi for bad performances (chapter 2) and for otherwise stigmatized behavior (chapter 3). These are certainly no unconfirmed hypotheses, but are the established motives for intoxicant use. These factors are necessary and sufficient explanations of the behavior we observe, as they can also account for the enormous individual and cultural differences in intoxicant behavior.

As long as we ignore the sociopsychological benefits from intoxication and intoxicant use, the use of intoxicants may appear mystical and incomprehensible. Traditionally, the use of intoxicants has been poorly understood. This is reflected in the fact that several publications have been issued on the topic "Theories of drinking and drug use ..."3, 4, 5

Several different theories have been put forward: Why on earth do people use intoxicants - and why do they use them to a harmful extent? This has been the long-standing enigma in the alcohol and drug field.

The analysis presented here is hardly based on theories. Intoxicants are, undoubtedly, used for symbolic and ritual purposes. Intoxication does function as an alibi for individuals facing the risk of bad performance or possibly showing stigmatized behavior. And the kinds of magical properties which are attributed to intoxicants, have to become self-fulfilling through learning, suggestion and self-suggestion.

It may, however, be maintained that one assumption is embedded in this sociopsychological analysis of motives for intoxicant use - the principle that these conspicuous motives are sufficient explanations for using alcohol and drugs, even for using it to a harmful extent.

Experience from psychiatry, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis particularly shows that maintaining an acceptable reputation and - above all - self-image is a primary goal for human endeavor. The concern for self-respect is, indeed, such a mighty force that it can even motivate excessive risk-taking behavior. The leading theorist of social psychology, Bandura, states that "there is no greater punishment than self-contempt".6 As suicide is not infrequently motivated by self-contempt, people also go to other extremes to avoid the torture of self-contempt. Intoxication may cause less self-contempt than performing badly or breaking norms in a state of full responsibility.


1.Mello,Nk & Mendelson,JH (1978): Alcohol and Human Behavior. Pp. 235-317 in Iversen,LL et al (eds.): Handbook of Psychopharmacology. Vol.12; Drugs of Abuse. Plenum Press, New York and London.

2.MacAndrew,C & Edgerton,RB (1969): Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation. Aldine, Chicago.

3.Lettieri, DJ et al (eds.)(1980): Theories on Drug Abuse. NIDA Research Monograph 30, Rockville, Md.

4.Blane,HT & Leonard,KE (eds.)(1986): Psychological Theories if Drinking and Alcoholism. The Guilford Press, New York.

5.Chaudron,CD & Wilkinson,DA (eds.)(1988): Theories of Alcoholism. Addiction Research Foundation, Toronto.

6.Bandura,A (1977): Social Learning theory, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

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