Despite its powerful pharmacological effects on the central nervous system, alcohol does not facilitate aggression in all persons or in all situations. Trait anger – a tendency to experience frequent and intense episodes of anger – has already been identified as a risk factor for alcohol-related aggression. Yet possessing high levels of trait anger does not necessarily guarantee that an intoxicated individual will become aggressive when provoked. A study in the June issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research finds that a person’s inability to control the outward expression of their anger plays a key role in alcohol-related aggression.
"Our previous research showed that men with high levels of trait anger are most at risk for becoming violent when they drink," said Peter R. Giancola, associate professor of psychology, director of the University of Kentucky Alcohol Research Laboratory, and corresponding author for the study. "This study adds to that by showing that the combination of high trait anger and low anger control even further increases your risk.’"
"This topic is exceedingly relevant as, generally, alcohol intoxication co-occurs with violence in approximately half of all rapes, murders and assaults, including family violence," added Robert O. Pihl, professor psychology and psychiatry at McGill University. "The significance of this correlation is typically ignored by society, possibly because the nature of the relationship remains argumentative. This study and others like it are slowly illuminating the mechanisms and vulnerabilities involved in the alcohol/aggression relationship."
Researchers examined 164 healthy male social drinkers (159 Caucasians, 5 African Americans) between the ages of 21 and 35 years who were recruited through local advertisements and paid for their participation. Trait anger and anger control were assessed with the State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory. Participants were given either an alcoholic (1g/kg alcohol) or a placebo beverage, and then participated in a laboratory aggression task.
Higher levels of trait anger were associated with increased aggression, but only among men who were intoxicated and also reported low levels of anger control.
"Most if not all individuals who drink and drink heavily do so without becoming violent," said Pihl. "Thus, the phenomenon invariably involves an alcohol effect, plus a specific type of situation, and the inability to deal with that situation. The Giancola paper suggests that the inability to control anger is an important factor in the equation. For individuals who fit the characteristics described by Giancola, drinking during emotionally provocative situations de facto is a license to aggress. Just like in the case of driving, this is a time these individuals should avoid alcohol. Further, these individuals might be wise to avail themselves of numerous intervention programs specifically designed to enhance anger control."
Giancola added "research indicates that alcohol increases aggression by reducing fear, increasing arousal, and impairing cognitive functioning. However, being in this disinhibited state does not mean that one will necessarily become aggressive," he said. "They might also become more talkative, jovial, or sexual." The over-arching aim of his entire research program, said Giancola, is to determine what factors are most important in increasing one’s risk for intoxicated aggression.
"Once these risk factors are identified, we will attempt to prevent them in children," he said.
Funding for this Addiction Science Made Easy project is provided by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center National Office, under the cooperative agreement from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of SAMHSA.
Articles were written based on the following published research:
Parrott, D.J., & Giancola, P.R. A further examination of the relation between trait anger and alcohol-related aggression: The role of anger control. (June 2004). Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 28(6) 855-864.