Further Reading

Do you agree with Robin Room that alcohol 'causes' aggression and violence?

Dear Stanton:

I do not know if you have been monitoring the debate on the CD list, but Robin Room just made the statement that alcohol causes violence, along with some other questionable claims. Do you agree with the claim alcohol "causes" certain behavior (i.e. violence, crime, etc.)?

Do you agree that intoxicated alcoholics should be forgiven their crimes?


Dear R.

A. Does Alcohol Cause Aggression/Violence?

Ironically, one of the references I always cite against this position is Room & Collins (1983), an edited collection of papers based on an ARG conference which shows from many different directions that how alcoholic disinhibition is interpreted and whether it is associated with violence/aggression is a matter of individual and cultural interpretation. Of course, the timeless classic on this question is "Drunken Comportment," by MacAndrew and Edgerton (1969; now out of print), which shows that there is generally culturewide consensus on what is permitted and what in fact happens when people are drunk. In cultures in which sexual orgies accompany drunkenness, incest taboos continue to be observed based on distant blood and marriage relationships which are incomprehensible to cultural outsiders. To make sense out of what Robin is saying, which seemingly contradicts his published positions on the question, interpret him to say, "Yes, aggression and intoxication are related only by cultural fiat and assumption. But ours is one culture in which they are associated. Therefore, this reality should be accepted and tolerated."

B. Punishing Alcoholic Misbehavior

I think misbehavior should be punished per se, whether or not a person is intoxicated. Indeed, I think that intoxication should be taken as an exacerbating, rather than a mitigating, consideration. I say this because:

  1. cultures in which alcoholic misbehavior is least likely (almost nonexistent) (e.g., Jewish, Glassner & Berg, 1980; Chinese, Barnett, 1955), disease/intoxication excuses are completely rejected;
  2. experimental evidence consistently indicates that alcoholics actively pursue desired goals in getting drunk and in seeking particular levels of intoxication (Heather & Robertson, 1981, Chapter 3);
  3. individuals display different attitudes towards whether intoxication is seen to permit/cause excessive and antisocial behavior, as well as violence and aggression (Critchlow, 1986);
  4. cultural and individual learning that such behavior is not permitted is only possible by dint of appropriate group responses to behavior that is not tolerated -- all else is confusing.

I testified in a case in Federal court in Virginia in which a drunk driver crossed a median strip, killing a woman (the ex-wife of an astronaut) in an oncoming car. Although evidence was not permitted on the topic, the driver had eight previous drunk driving arrests. The man was a leader in the AA community. He had set out that morning to get drunk (periodic relapses were part and parcel of his view of his alcoholism and his involvement in AA), and not only did he take no steps to stay out of a car, he in fact planned a day of active driving. As I testified about experimental evidence on the retention of volition by intoxicated alcoholics, the man vigorously shook his head "no" to indicate that I was gainsaying the verities he had learned and accepted in AA.

The judge refused to hear a murder charge, but the driver was convicted of manslaughter. My guess is he would be out in 3-4. In court that day was the driver's wife and newborn baby. The police told me that the several weeks previously they had been called to his house to arrest the man for kicking his then pregnant wife.


Barnett, M.L. Alcoholism in the Cantonese of New York City: An anthropological study. In: Diethelm, O. (ed.). Etiology of Chronic Alcoholism. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas, 1955:179-227.

Critchlow, B. The powers of John Barleycorn: Beliefs about the effects of alcohol on social behavior. American Psychologist 1986; 41:751-764.

Glassner, B., and Berg, B. How Jews avoid alcohol problems. American Sociological Review 1980; 45:647-64.

Heather, N., and Robertson, I. Controlled Drinking. London: Methuen, 1981.

MacAndrew, C., and Edgerton, R.B. Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation. Chicago: Aldine, 1969.

Room, R., and Collins, G. (eds.). Alcohol and Disinhibition: Nature and Meaning of the Link. Rockville, MD: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1983.