Q: I’ve been with my boyfriend for nine months. We are both in our late 20s and go out drinking a lot with our friends. I’ve noticed that when he’s drunk, he’ll be super affectionate and say really gushy things about me, our getting married, etc. Are his true feelings coming out, or is he just talking lovey-dovey because of the booze?—Bridal Hopes
A: You’ve got to be wondering what it would take for you two to live happily ever after … cirrhosis?
Many people insist that their personality changes dramatically when they’re all likkered up. Remind them of some outrageous thing they did the other night at the bar and they’ll go all protest-y—“But that wasn’t the real me!”—and point the finger at Jack, Jose or the Captain (as in Daniel, Cuervo or Morgan). The reality is, research on drinking’s effects on personality by clinical psychologist Rachel Winograd finds that beyond one area of personality—extroverson, which increases slightly in drunken people—we’re all pretty much the same jerks (or whatever) that we are when we’re sober.
This consistency that Winograd and her colleagues observe makes sense vis-a-vis how psychologists find that personality has a strong genetic component and involves habitual patterns of thoughts, feelings and behavior. (There are five major personality dimensions: Conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness to experience and extroversion.) And though the Winograd team did find a small increase in extroversion, a body of research finds that personality traits are largely consistent across time and situations.
However, the skeptic in you might ask: If personality doesn’t change after, say, three Sriracha margaritas, how come we’ve all seen people behaving differently when they’re sauced? Well, according to research by social psychologists Claude M. Steele and Robert A. Josephs, the behavioral changes of drunken excess appear to be caused not by alcohol itself but by alcohol-driven changes in perception that they call “alcohol myopia.” Alcohol appears to restrict attention, giving a person a sort of tunnel vision for whatever’s right in front of them.
To explain this more simply, alcohol basically turns a person into the chimp version of themselves—focusing on whatever’s right in their face and experiencing simple basic emotions in response, like fear, lust, anger or blubbering affection. Meanwhile, alcohol diminishes their ability for mental processing of any complexity—most notably the sort of thinking that normally leads a person to say, “Well, on the other hand … ” (that little voice of reason that pipes up in more sober moments).
Interestingly, the research on alcohol myopia debunks a widely believed myth—the assumption that getting drunk will necessarily lead a person to be much less inhibited. It may, but it may also lead the other way—to increased inhibition and less risk-taking.
Consider field research by psychologist Tara MacDonald and her colleagues. Patrons entering a bar got their hands stamped—seemingly just to allow them to re-enter without standing in line again. Some had their hands stamped with the ominous warning “AIDS KILLS.” Others got the nebulous statement “SAFE SEX” or—in the control group—a smiley face. The 372 hand-stamped participants were later divided into two groups based on blood alcohol level. (Those with a blood alcohol level that was .08 percent or above were the “intoxicated group.”)
The researchers found that the “intoxicated” people with the smiley or “SAFE SEX” stamp were more likely than sober participants to have sex without a condom. However, intoxicated people with the fear-inducing “AIDS KILLS” message expressed less willingness to have unprotected sex than even sober people the researchers surveyed. This is right in line with how alcohol leads to “tunnel vision.”
Getting back to your boyfriend’s drunken mushygushies, consider how the tunnel vision of alcohol myopia likely plays out for him as he looks at you in the moment at the bar: “She’s so sparkly and nice … ” What’s missing, however, is all of the adult complexity—all of that “on the other hand … ” thinking that he’d likely do in more sober moments: Whether you two can make it as lifelong partners, whether he’s up for creating little people who’d call him Daddy, etc. In other words, there’s probably some stuff that he still needs to figure out. Give it some time—tempting as it is to use the findings about alcohol myopia to answer the question, “How will you make him hurry up and propose?” Two words: “Open bar.”