Alcohol is a powerful psychoactive (i.e., mind-altering) substance and its use is clearly linked to violent behavior. Numerous large-scale surveys and epidemiological studies show a link between alcohol and various types of violent behavior. Individuals who drink chronically as well as individuals who binge drink are at increased risk for perpetrating violence and becoming a victim of violence themselves. Laboratory research on the role of alcohol and violent behavior has established that alcohol plays a causal role in the perpetration of violence, but only in individuals with other risk factors.
The Psychoactive Effects Of Alcohol
Throughout human history, alcohol has been consumed for recreational, medicinal, and spiritual purposes. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, that is, alcohol decreases brain activity leading to a variety of cognitive (thought), emotional, and behavioral effects. For most drinkers these effects are nonproblematic, but for some the effects lead to severe consequences. Alcohol can lead to chronic compulsive use and physical dependence. Negative consequences can also be experienced by those who do not use in this manner. Even a single moderate dose can lead to problematic effects in some individuals and contexts.
Two alcohol-related effects relevant to violence are impaired cognitive processing (thought processes) and behavioral disinhibition (impulsivity). Both effects manifest at low doses and increase as consumption increases. Impaired cognitive processing manifests as a decreased ability to attend to environmental cues. Behavioral disinhibition is thought to occur as a result of alcohol impairing brain centers that inhibit certain processes and behaviors. Although there is some controversy, researchers believe that one or both of these mechanisms contribute to the alcohol–violence link.
The Role Of Alcohol In Violent Behavior
More than any other psychoactive substance, alcohol is related to aggressive and violent behavior. This link has been established through large-scale epidemiological research conducted in the United States, Canada, and Western and Eastern Europe. These studies show that alcohol is involved in approximately 60% of all violent crime. That is, in almost two thirds of all violent crime, the perpetrator was under the influence of alcohol at the time of perpetration.
Alcohol And The Continuum Of Violence
The above findings refer to a range of violent crime from simple assault to murder. Estimates of the relationship between alcohol and the degree of violence are similar for different levels of violence (e.g., for assault and murder). Importantly, this relationship is more than the relationship between alcohol and crime in general. When violent crimes are compared to nonviolent crimes, alcohol is twice as likely to be involved in the violent crime. There appears to be a unique relationship between alcohol and the perpetration of violence.
Reports of alcohol consumption prior to a violent episode are not the only place in which the alcohol– violence relationship appears. As alcohol sales increase at the national level, violent crime and homicide increase as well. This relationship has been found in numerous countries with varying base rates of consumption. In addition, as the density of alcohol establishments increases, so do violent assaults. In fact, along with poverty, density of alcohol establishments is a strong predictor of the violent crime rate in a particular geographic setting (e.g., a neighborhood or town).
Overall the findings on the relationship between alcohol use and violence are compelling. This relationship often manifests in a dose-response manner at the individual and societal levels. In addition to making general estimates of this relationship, researchers have examined the role of alcohol in specific forms of violence. Two such forms, sexual aggression and intimate partner violence, have particularly interested researchers, clinicians, and policymakers. A discussion of these forms follows.
Sexual aggression can be defined as an attempt to coerce, threaten, or force the commission of sexual acts against an individual’s will. Although many studies assessing the relationship between alcohol and sexual aggression have methodological problems, they still offer insight into the role of alcohol in the perpetration of sexual violence. Studies have shown that convicted rapists show higher levels of alcohol abuse and dependence than community samples, as well as higher rates than those convicted of nonsexual violent crimes. A number of studies have shown a relationship between intensity of alcohol use and the perpetration of sexual aggression. Specifically, as intensity increases, the severity of sexual aggression also increases. In studying the use of alcohol at the time of the offense, researchers estimate that 30% to 75% of perpetrators were using alcohol at the time of perpetration.
Because of the nature of these studies, it is difficult to know whether alcohol is directly involved in the perpetration of sexual violence, the relationship reflects a more general pattern of deviance, or the link occurs only because alcohol use and sexual aggression happen within the same contexts. There is research support for each interpretation. That is, generally deviant individuals are at risk for both alcohol use/abuse and sexual violence perpetration, a relationship exists between alcohol use and sexual aggression even after controlling for other risk factors, and alcohol use and sexual aggression often occur in similar contexts.
Intimate Partner Violence
Intimate partner violence (IPV) refers to acts of aggression directed toward an individual with whom a person is intimately involved (e.g., a spouse or partner). These acts of aggression result in short-term and long-term physical and psychological injury or, in some cases, death. A number of studies have documented a relationship between variables related to alcohol use and IPV perpetration. Heavy drinkers are up to twice as likely to perpetrate IPV than light drinkers or nondrinkers. Alcohol has been linked to IPV in studies that have controlled for factors such as age, socioeconomic status, employment, and race/ ethnicity. Even after controlling for variables such as acceptance of violence, hostility, and antisocial behavior, studies have found that the relationship between alcohol and IPV remains. Drinking patterns have also been shown to predict future perpetration of domestic violence. Most importantly, however, acute alcohol consumption is related to perpetration, and alcohol intoxication at the time of perpetration is related to the severity of violence. It has been found that in over one third of fatal IPV episodes, the perpetrator was drinking at the time. The number of studies showing these relationships leads to the compelling conclusion that alcohol is related to the perpetration of IPV. However, it is important to note that alcohol is one of a number of causes of IPV. IPV occurs in the absence of alcohol use, and most people who consume alcohol do not engage in IPV.
Even with the amount of empirical evidence establishing the relationship between IPV and alcohol, there is much controversy within the field of IPV research and treatment concerning the role of alcohol in the perpetration of IPV. This controversy is centered on the same issues mentioned for sexual aggression (i.e., general deviance predicting both issues and context). In addition, some have argued that alcohol is merely an excuse for IPV; however, empirical evidence supporting this assertion is lacking. Empirical evidence does suggest that the causes of IPV are multifactorial, and likely include cultural, contextual, and personal variables—including alcohol.
Experimental Studies Of The Alcohol–Violence Link
The information discussed above comes mainly from correlational studies, which assess the strength and direction of relationships but do not assess cause and effect. Therefore, asserting a causal relationship between alcohol and violence is inappropriate based on these studies; however, experimental laboratory studies allow researchers to assess the causal role of alcohol in the perpetration of violence. The data suggest that alcohol is in fact one casual-agent of aggression and violence.
Most of the studies showing evidence of a causal relationship between alcohol and violent behavior utilize an experimental procedure called the Taylor aggression paradigm. As part of this procedure, participants believe they are in a competition with an opponent (who is actually fictitious) where the goal is to be the fastest person to respond during the experimental task. The task involves a series of trials and the fastest respondent for a trial administers an electrical shock to his or her “opponent.” In reality, winning and losing on a given trial is random. Mild shocks are administered by a computer to the participant on half the trials. On the other half, the actual participant “wins” and can administer a shock in which he or she chooses the intensity and duration. Aggression is defined as the intensity and duration of the shock administered. This method has been shown to be a highly valid measure of reactive aggression.
Numerous studies using this method show that alcohol-intoxicated participants, given provocation, apply greater intensity and duration of administered shocks compared to no intoxicated participants and participants given a placebo. In fact, this finding is one of the most consistent and reliable findings in the psychological literature; however, not all participants manifest increased aggression. This relationship is found more often in males than females. In addition, a variety of variables moderate this relationship, including aggressive disposition, trait anger, and below average frontal lobe function. Given this, most researchers now agree that alcohol can cause aggressive behavior in certain at-risk individuals.
The current accepted view as to how alcohol causes aggression is that alcohol contributes to aggression by impairing thought processing, thus restricting individuals’ processing ability such that they are only able to process highly salient (i.e., highly visible, intense) cues such as threat, provocation, or perceived loss of control. Given this, individuals are less able to process environmental and situational cues that would normally inhibit violence; therefore, aggression becomes more probable. This theory, often referred to as alcohol myopia, has been supported by a wealth of studies and has proven useful in improving understanding of the alcohol–violence link.
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