Spirit drinking linked to aggressive emotion


Drinkers in 21 countries report that different types of alcohol prompt different emotional responses. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


English actor Michael Caine as Jack Carter and Ian Hendry as Eric Paice in Mike Hodges' thriller 'Get Carter', 1970. Whisky can bring out the worst in people.
English actor Michael Caine as Jack Carter and Ian Hendry as Eric Paice in Mike Hodges' thriller 'Get Carter', 1970. Whisky can bring out the worst in people.
MGM Studios/Getty Images

Drinking spirits is more likely to draw out aggression and other negative feelings than all other types of alcohol, according to a new study published in the journal BMJ Open.

The study set out to investigate the emotional responses generated by different types of alcoholic beverages. The emotions noted in the study include feeling energised, relaxed, sexy, confident, tired, aggressive, ill, restless, and tearful.

"For centuries the history of rum, gin, vodka and other spirits has been laced with violence,” says study co-author Mark Bellis, from the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK.

“This global study suggests even today consuming spirits is more likely to result in feelings of aggression than other drinks.”

The study says alcohol use is of “international public health concern with approximately 3.3 million deaths and 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury attributable to alcohol consumption in 2014.” It cites “a growing body of evidence” illustrating the harm caused by those who drink alcohol -- to individuals around them, and to wider communities.

“Understanding why people choose particular drink types and whether different drinks elicit different emotions may help inform more effective public health interventions,” the authors write.

Spirits were the least likely to be associated with feeling relaxed (20%); while red wine was the most likely to elicit this feeling (just under 53%), followed by beer (about 50%).

Nearly a third of spirit drinkers associated this product with feelings of aggression, compared with only about 2.5% of red-wine drinkers.

But spirits were also more likely to elicit some positive feelings than either beer or wine. About 59% of respondents associated these drinks with feelings of energy and confidence, and more than 40% associated them with feeling sexy.

The study drew on data gathered by the Global Drug Survey, an independent research organisation, which runs annual self-funded surveys. (This year it has accepted additional funding from Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council).For the purposes of this research, information was obtained from an online anonymous questionnaire in 11 languages promoted internationally through newspapers, magazines and social media from November 2015 to January 2016. Responses were received from 29,836 people, aged 18 to 34, from 21 countries, who reported consuming beer, spirits, red and white wine in the previous 12 months.

Responses differed according to educational attainment, country of origin, and age, with the youngest age group (18-24) the most likely to associate any type of alcohol with feelings of confidence, energy and sexiness when drinking away from home.

The responses also differed by gender and degree of alcohol dependency. Women were significantly more likely than men to associate each feeling -- except for aggression -- with all types of alcohol.

But men were significantly more likely to associate feelings of aggression with all types of alcohol, as were those categorised as heavy or dependent drinkers, who were six times more likely to do so than low-risk drinkers.

The researchers note that this is an “observational study so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect”.

But they add that their findings suggest that those who are dependent on alcohol drink as a coping mechanism rather than for pleasure. “This was evident particularly among heavier drinkers. This highlights a potential emotional gap which individuals may be looking to fill by drinking alcohol,” the researchers write.

“This gap can be a concern, particularly with exploitation by the alcohol industry with advertising focused on pushing the positive emotions associated with alcohol use without outlining the negatives which go alongside them.”

The study concludes that understanding the relationship between different types of alcohol and the emotions and associated behaviours they may elicit may help improve public health messages and health promotion. Further, it suggests its findings may help to curb drink dependency: “These results suggest that the different types of alcohol are not necessarily perceived or used in the same way and therefore harm prevention policy may benefit from treating types of drinks differently, especially when addressing spirits and, for instance their significant association with aggression.”

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/lookup/doi/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-016089
  2. https://www.globaldrugsurvey.com/
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