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Is alcohol a placebo?

Alcohol makes people do very strange things, doesn’t it?  From ‘On Being The Sober Guy At The Party’ from The Shapes and Disfigurements of Raymond Atrobus:

I’ve seen people at parties strip
deep into the naked night.
I know their names,
I’ve seen them crawl on the floor
WOOF WOOF! I’M A DOG!

And yet, perhaps alcohol affects people from different cultures in different ways.  Here’s ‘Satoru’, one of the narrators in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten:

I’ve seen foreigners get drunk in bars out in Sibuya and place, and they turn into animals. Japanese people never do that. The men might get friskier, but never violent.  Alcohol just lets off steam for Japanese. For foreigners, alcohole just seems to build steam up. And they kiss in public, too! I’ve seen them stick their tongues in a grope the girl’s breasts. In bars, where everyone can see!

These passages remind me of this article by Kate Fox of the Social Issues Research Centre, which suggest that the effect of alcohol is more in the excuse it gives us to break social barriers and revert to base behaviours.

In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, “Oi, what you lookin’ at?” and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, “Hey babe, fancy a shag?” and start groping each other.

The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol.

So perhaps alcohol is actually a sort of placebo.  We think it causes us to become gregarious, rude, aggressive or transgressive.  And so we become those things.

(Photo from CollegeHumour.com)

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