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Scientists Explain Why Alcohol Causes Embarrassing Behaviors

posted 11:37 PM EST, Sun September 04, 2011

Researchers at the University of Missouri say they know why we’re more likely to do really dumb things when drunk – it’s not that we don’t realize that we’re screwing up, it’s just that we just lose the ability to care very much about the mistakes we know we’re making.

In an experiment which had study subjects perform a complicated computer task (game) that was designed to elicit some mistakes, subjects who had consumed alcohol were just as aware of their mistakes as study subjects who had not consumed alcohol, but unlike the sober gamers, they just didn’t care very much about making a mistake.

  • After making a mistake, subjects who had not consumed alcohol would slow their play to avoid making more mistakes, and to get back in control of their play.
  • After making a mistake, study subjects who had consumed alcohol would exhibit no such slow-down.

According to the researchers, the brain has a function that works like an alarm, which picks up on external cues and lets us know when we’re making a mistake of some sort. Previous research has shown that alcohol dulls the effectiveness of this function, but in this latest experiment it seems clear that although the activity of our mistake-alarm is diminished, we are still very able to tell when we’re making a mistake after drinking - it’s just that we lose the ability to really care about the consequences.

Commenting on the significance this has for people in real-world scenarios, lead researcher associate professor of psychology Bruce Bartholow explains that “Going home with that person might be a bad idea, taking a swing at that guy might not be a good idea, getting in my car and driving home right now is probably not a good idea: People know these things are wrong, but they just don't feel as bothered by the implications."

The full study results will be published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 

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Story Highlights
  • The Brain's Mistake Alarm: The brain has a function that sort of sounds an alarm to let us know when we're making a blinder so we can correct our behaviors
  • When Drunk, We Don't Care: After drinking we are no less aware of the mistakes we make, but we lose the ability to care very much about the consequences of our actions.
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