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Research about alcohol-related aggression and violence

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Alcohol intoxication can lead individuals with specific risk factors to commit aggressive and violent acts

Given the ongoing debate in the United States, surrounding allegations from Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate, about the possible sexual misconduct of Brett Kavanaugh, light has been shed on the impact of alcohol intoxication on physical aggression and interpersonal violence.

Dr. Peter Giancola, clinical psychologist at Blake Psychology in Montreal, has been researching the link between alcohol intoxication and aggression for almost 20 years, while working as a professor at the University of Kentucky.  As an expert in the field, he has received and managed multi-million-dollar federal research grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and published more than a 100 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals.  Dr. Giancola’s research findings have shown that alcohol intoxication, in and of itself, does not necessarily cause persons to become violent but it contributes to the risk of violence by reducing the inhibition that would normally temper inherent impulses.

“Someone intoxicated in a public place would not necessarily be dangerous for the population if they do not possess any risk factors”, says Dr. Giancola.  “While intoxicated, research shows that many people may become overly emotional or jovial and such behaviours are essentially harmless to the population.  However, if an intoxicated person possesses traits that place them at risk for violence, such as a difficulty controlling their sexual impulses or having a hostile personality, they will be more likely to act on these impulses and cause harm to others”.

Dr. Giancola conducted a study where 328 participants identified as social drinkers between 21 and 35 years of age, completed personality inventories to assess their propensity for physical aggression. Following the consumption of either an alcohol or a placebo beverage, participants were then tested on the Taylor Aggression Paradigm (TAP), an evidenced-based measure of direct physical aggression, in which mild electric shocks are received from, and administered to, a fictitious opponent during a competitive task. Direct physical aggression was operationalized as the shock intensities administered to the fictitious opponent. Overall, persons with a higher propensity for physical aggression were more violent than those with a lower propensity.  More importantly, alcohol increased violence for persons with higher, but not lower, traits of aggression.

“Not only was our team able to replicate these findings but also, this study confirmed that the Taylor Aggression Paradigm is a valid measure to access the magnitude of direct physical aggression”, says Dr. Giancola.

As alcohol is a main feature of parties among University and college-age students, how can we as a society, prevent fun from deteriorating into violence, once alcohol is involved?

Dr. Giancola believes that education is the key.

“If individuals can gain insight about their risk factors, such as a tendency to have difficulty controlling sexual or aggressive impulses when sober, they may think twice before getting intoxicated in public or other situations where inhibition needs to remain intact” says Dr. Giancola.

This article has been written by psychologist Dr. Emily Blake, with the collaboration of Dr. Peter Giancola.

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Dr Emily Blake

Dr. Blake has completed 12 years of university-level training in psychology, including her PhD from McGill University. She has worked in hospital, school, university, community, and private practice settings, with a focus on the treatment of anxiety disorders, depression, anger management, and interpersonal difficulties, in both adolescent and adult populations. Dr. Blake is the owner and director of the Blake Psychology clinic.