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Distraction Can Defuse Drunken Violence

FRIDAY July 20, 2007 -- For some people, a well-timed distraction can help curb violence linked to drunkenness, new research shows.

Men with a tendency to violence when drinking stayed calm under the influence of alcohol when told to perform a memory task, even when provoked, finds a new study in the July issue of Psychological Science.

"There is a theory that alcohol reduces your field of attention," explained lead researcher Peter Giancola, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. "So, you can really only focus on one thing when you are drunk. You can only pay attention to what's right in your face," he said.

Of course, distraction won't work for everyone in curbing drinking-related behavior. But it may work for people who become aggressive after a few drinks.

To test the theory, Giancola and his student Michelle Corman had men drink and then play a computer game against an unseen opponent. When the men lost, they received an electric shock. When the won, they had the opportunity to shock their opponent. The idea was to see how drinking affected each man's tendency toward aggression, which was measured by the intensity of shocks they chose to hand out.

To see if aggression could be reduced, the researchers had some of the men perform a memory test as they played the game. In fact, the men were told that the memory test was the most important part of what they were doing.

Giancola and Corman found that men who drank and only played the game showed clear aggression toward their opponent. However, men who had to focus their attention on the memory task were actually less aggressive than even nondrinkers who played the game.

"The alcohol [using] guys have so little attention, it gets focused one place or the other," Giancola said. "Either to the hostile cues or the non-hostile memory test," he said. "So, the theory held up, that alcohol doesn't always increase aggression. It only increases it depending on where you are focused."

The finding suggests that distraction might help defuse volatile, alcohol-fueled situations, such as a bar brawl, Giancola said. "We have to distract people away from these provocative cues," he said.

Of course, not everyone becomes aggressive when they drink. "Many people become sleepy and happy," he said. "So, this theory only works for people who already have traits that put them at risk. Alcohol doesn't make you do different things. It just allows what is already inside you to come out -- it just takes the brakes off."

There are identifiable risk factors for aggression and violence, Giancola said. One of the biggest risk factors is people's personal attitude toward violence, he said. "You have some people come into the lab and say, 'Beating my wife and kids is a good thing, because it keeps them in line.' Well, you don't want to give those guys alcohol, because it just allows that belief to come right out."

Additional risk factors include impulsiveness and irritability. "These are two risk factors that you don't want to mix with alcohol," Giancola said.

Giancola believes efforts must be focused on changing people's underlying attitudes about violence and alcohol -- on the one hand, teaching that violence is not an acceptable form of expression, and, on the other hand, not blaming alcohol when inappropriate behavior occurs.

More information

For more information on alcohol and aggression, visit the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Posted: July 2007


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