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Study: Drinkers Aware of, but Indifferent to Their Stupid Actions

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Bette Davis in the 1952 movie "The Star."

The blogger who posted this writes, "Best scene of the film: Margaret goes driving with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and her Best Actress Oscar on the dashboard."

Perhaps the results of a new study will lead to better ways to keep people from drinking and driving. The study, by Bruce D. Bartholow, associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the first to find that although people under the influence of alcoholic beverages know they are doing embarrassing or stupid things while intoxicated, they simply do not care.

As Steven Adams reports for the University of Missouri News Bureau, the study shows that alcohol dulls the brain signal that warns people when they are making a mistake. In the study, Bartholow’s team measured the brain activity in 67 people, ages 21 to 35, as they worked on a computer task designed to be very challenging.

Harry Jackson Jr. writes in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article on that researchers gave a third of the participants drinks with enough alcohol to raise their blood levels to just under the legal driving limit of .08.

Another third were given placebo drinks and did not know if those did or did not contain alcohol. The remaining third of the participants consumed drinks they knew did not contain alcohol. Researchers monitored the participants’ brain activity and measured changes in their mood, their ability to perform the computer task accurately, and also their perceived accuracy.

The study found that the participants who had consumed the alcoholic beverages had a much less pronounced “alarm signal” in response to errors they committed than those participants who had not drunk alcohol.

As Adams writes:

However, those in the alcohol group were no less likely to realize when they had made a mistake than participants in the other groups, indicating that alcohol’s reduction of the brain’s ‘alarm signal’ did not occur simply because those in the alcohol group were unaware of their errors. The findings also showed that those who had consumed alcohol were less likely to slow down and be more careful in the task following errors.

‘In tasks like the one we used, although we encourage people to try to respond as quickly as possible, it is very common for people to respond more slowly following an error, as a way of trying to regain self-control.  That’s what we saw in our placebo group.  The alcohol group participants didn’t do this,’ Bartholow said.

According to Jackson:

Dr. Douglas Schuerer, a trauma surgeon with Barnes-Jewish Hospital, said the findings aren’t a surprise. ‘This says that people should think before they drink,’ he said.

That advice goes beyond New Year’s Eve and its tradition of drinking: ‘It’s something that needs to be considered 365,’ he said.

Many of Schuerer’s patients are people from the hospital’s emergency room who need surgery.

‘About 50 per cent of patients we see from traffic accidents, alcohol was involved,’ he said. ‘That doesn’t always mean they were drinking; sometimes they were hit by a drunk driver.’

In addition, he said he sees more personal injury accidents involving people impaired by alcohol.

The study is called “Alcohol Effects on Performance Monitoring and Adjustment: Affect Modulation and Impairment of Evaluative Cognitive Control” and will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. It was funded by University of Missouri Research Board and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

You can see an excerpt from the Hollywood film, The 40 Year Old Virgin, that embodies a drunk driver’s blasé attitude here.

Image by, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


One Response to “Study: Drinkers Aware of, but Indifferent to Their Stupid Actions”


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