"We know that there's a link between alcohol and aggression," said Peter R. Giancola, associate professor of psychology, director of the University of Kentucky Alcohol Research Laboratory, and first author of the study, "but does it occur in everybody? No, there are plenty of people who drink a lot and they get sleepy and happy, just as there are plenty of people who drink and they get out of control. That's the obvious part. The not-so-obvious part is figuring out what predicts who will and who will not become aggressive when they drink. Where do we start?
"You might think that people who are generally more angry when they are sober are likely going to become more aggressive when they drink, however, there are plenty of people who are very angry when they are sober and they do not become aggressive when they drink."
Amos Zeichner, professor and director of the Psychology Clinic at the University of Georgia, said the first step to understanding the relationship between anger and alcohol-related aggression is to recognize that there are different types of anger. "The term 'anger' comprises the experience of feelings, thoughts, and behavioral aspects just as, for instance, the experience of 'pain' has several components such as motivational, affective, sensory, and behavioral," he said.
Although aggression is a goal-directed behavior motivated by the desire to injure another person, anger refers to a set of feelings that are not motivated by any particular goal. Trait anger is believed to have three basic components: affective, referring to emotions such as annoyance, frustration or irritation; cognitive, characterized by cynicism and distrust; and behavioral, which is the more 'acting out' component of anger, such as yelling or 'causing a scene' in a public place.
For this study, researchers examined 300 healthy social drinkers (150 males, 150 females) between 21 and 35 years of age. First, they measured the participants' three components of trait anger and then, following consumption of either an alcohol or a placebo beverage, measured their aggressive behavior within an experimental setting.
The results confirm previous findings that anger can be a risk factor for alcohol-related aggression, however, alcohol consumption does not increase aggression in all persons and in all situations. Alcohol-related aggression was greater among men with higher behavioral and cognitive anger scores, and among women with just higher behavioral anger scores.
"We know that women in society are, in general, less violent that men," noted Giancola. "Women tend to have a higher threshold for violence, which comes from society telling them to be good. In order to see violence occur in women, they either have to be environmentally provoked, a lot, or they have to be the type of person who, in the sober state, is already getting in your face, and knocking people around."
"The relationship among emotion, alcohol intoxication, and aggression is very complex," said Zeichner. "Try as we may, we cannot provide a neatly packaged formula to explain and predict intoxicated aggression. The interface between a situation one finds himself or herself in and one's personality is comprised of a multitude of psychological and physiological events. We need to break down such complexities into their components in order to advance our understanding of human behavior, which is what Dr. Giancola's work does."
"There are a lot of things that put people at risk for just about anything," added Giancola, "for heart disease, cancer, and violence under the influence of alcohol. However, just as there are a lot of things that will put individuals at risk, so too will a lot of things protect them. For example, if someone grew up in a loving home where they were taught how to control their anger, then maybe they will still grow up as an angry person, but they will have learned how to control it, how to regulate it, and will be less likely to display it. This could be considered a protective or preventive measure. Our job is to try and first discern those things that will put people at risk for violence under the influence of alcohol. What are the top five or 10 risk factors? How do they all work together? Once we've discovered this, then we can start implementing interventions and maybe even preventive measures."