Data from Far Afield

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

There is a very long but fascinating article by Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker about how some anthropological fieldwork ultimately helped advance our understanding of how alcohol affects behavior. The article does a good job of summarizing the old understanding of the effects, as well as providing an example of what was wrong with it:

Alcohol disinhibits, we assume, as reliably as caffeine enlivens. It gradually unlocks the set of psychological constraints that keep our behavior in check, and makes us do things that we would not ordinarily do. It's a drug, after all.

But, after Heath's work on the Camba, anthropologists began to take note of all the puzzling ways in which alcohol wasn't reliable in its effects. In the classic 1969 work "Drunken Comportment," for example, the anthropologists Craig MacAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton describe an encounter that Edgerton had while studying a tribe in central Kenya. One of the tribesmen, he was told, was "very dangerous" and "totally beyond control" after he had been drinking, and one day Edgerton ran across the man...
Edgerton reports the following:
I heard a commotion, and saw people running past me. One young man stopped and urged me to flee because this dangerous drunk was coming down the path attacking all whom he met. As I was about to take this advice and leave, the drunk burst wildly into the clearing where I was sitting. I stood up, ready to run, but much to my surprise, the man calmed down, and as he walked slowly past me, he greeted me in polite, even deferential terms, before he turned and dashed away. I later learned that in the course of his "drunken rage" that day he had beaten two men, pushed down a small boy, and eviscerated a goat with a large knife.
This report from the field, along with other evidence, led to a new conception about how alcohol works, the "myopia theory":
[Psychologist Claude] Steele and his colleague Robert Josephs's explanation is that we've misread the effects of alcohol on the brain. Its principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental field of vision. It causes, they write, "a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion."

Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That's why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check. Drinking relaxes the man watching football because the game is front and center, and alcohol makes every secondary consideration fade away. But in a quiet bar his problems are front and center -- and every potentially comforting or mitigating thought recedes. Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia.
Although I am not really in a position to voice agreement with this theory, this is an interesting idea, and it was fun to read how field work, apparently unrelated to the study of how a drug affects behavior, led to its formulation.

-- CAV

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