Alcohol: The Aggression Elixir?
Peter Giancola
Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Kentucky
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Executive Cognitive Functioning (ECF) | ECF is a higher-order cognitive construct that covers planning, initiation, and regulation of goal-directed behavior. Cognitive abilities included in this construct are control of attention, strategic goal planning, abstract reasoning, cognitive flexibility, hypothesis generation, temporal response sequencing, and the ability to organize and adaptively utilize information contained in working memory. The prefrontal cortex and its subcortical circuits are thought to be the neurological substrates that subserve ECF. People with psychiatric disorders that sometimes entail aggressive behavior, such as antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, conduct disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, all show poorer performance on neuropsychological measures of ECF. Low ECF capacity has been linked to increased aggression in laboratory tests in preadolescents and young adult males, increased disruptive, delinquent, and physically aggressive behavior in adolescent females, and increased mother and teacher reports of aggression and conduct problems. It has been hypothesized that low ECF facilitates the expression of aggression by decreasing behavioral inhibition and interfering with the ability to generate alternative, nonaggressive responses in provocative situations. It is well known that acute alcohol consumption detrimentally affects cognitive functioning in general. However, its predominant disruptive effects are on ECF. Neuroimaging studies have corroborated this finding by demonstrating that acute alcohol consumption reduces glucose metabolism predominantly in the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that acute alcohol consumption disrupts ECF, which then facilitates aggression. Recall, however, that alcohol does not facilitate aggression in all people. It is thus reasonable to suggest that the proposed process is more likely to occur in those who already have low ECF.

Alcohol Expectancies | Alcohol expectancies are beliefs about the effects of alcohol on behavior (different from placebo effects). Some research suggests that intoxicated aggression results, in part, from the belief that alcohol increases aggression. It is well known that people vary in their belief that alcohol increases arousal, power, assertiveness, verbal aggression, and physical aggression. Significantly, self-report studies indicate that the association between alcohol consumption and aggression is stronger among individuals who expect alcohol to increase aggression. Only one published laboratory study, using the TAP, related the effects of alcohol on subjects' aggression to their beliefs about the effects of alcohol on aggression. Results indicated that under conditions of high provocation, intoxicated subjects with high expectancies about the effects of alcohol on aggression were more aggressive.

Dispositional Aggressivity | Dispositional aggressivity—a person's typical level of aggressiveness across a range of situations—is strongly related to self-reported husband-to-wife violence and violent behavior in college males. In addition, as noted earlier, dispositionally aggressive individuals, such as those with antisocial personality or conduct disorder, show low levels of ECF. Only one study has assessed the combined effects of acute alcohol consumption and dispositional aggressivity on aggression as measured by the TAP. Acute alcohol consumption increased aggression in men with high levels of dispositional aggressivity but not in those with low or moderate levels.

Drinking History | Quantity of past alcohol consumption is positively related to self-reported aggression in both male and female social drinkers. Theory suggests that increased alcohol consumption and aggressive behavior are both components of an overarching construct of "deviant behavior." However, the underlying mechanisms, or causal dynamics, of that construct are not known. Moreover, one laboratory study found that acute alcohol consumption increased aggression on the TAP only in males with low rather than moderate or high levels of past-year drinking. The authors hypothesized that alcohol's detrimental effects on cognition were greater in those with a low tolerance for alcohol compared with those with a higher tolerance.

Biochemistry | Both animal and human research have demonstrated a positive relation between testosterone levels and physical aggression. A recent study found that healthy young males with high levels of testosterone, measured from saliva, were more aggressive on the TAP than those with low levels. Another study reported an increase in aggressive responding on the PSAP subsequent to the administration of testosterone cypionate to anabolic steroid users. Heightened impulsive aggressive behavior has also been related to a low level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Interestingly, recent studies using the TAP and the PSAP have demonstrated increased aggression in healthy males who received a tryptophan-depleted dietary mixture. Tryptophan is the biochemical precursor for serotonin; its dietary depletion leads to lowered brain serotonin levels.

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