Drinking and Public Disorder

Drinking & Public Disorder - download the book in pdf format Dr Peter Marsh & Kate Fox 1992

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Drinking and Public Disorder
A report of research conducted for The Portman Group by MCM Research

Drinking and aggression

The scientific literature concerning links between alcohol consumption and aggression is now very extensive. We have catalogued some of the major contributions in this area in Appendix E – Selected and annotated bibliography. Excellent reviews of the field are also contained in the contributions by Gibbs and Brain to Drinking and Disorder: Proceedings of the MCM Conference (1991) published as a companion document to this report. Here, however, it is appropriate to outline what we perceive as an increasingly consensual view among social scientists, including ourselves, regarding the indirect links between alcohol consumption, on the one hand, and aggressive behaviour, violence and patterns of disorder on the other, and the factors which may mediate between the two.

The popular view, in this country and some others, is that alcohol consumption by males inevitably increases their likelihood of engaging in aggressive behaviour. It is also popularly assumed that the causal factor is either a direct, chemical one, or relies on a mediating process of disinhibition. In the latter case, aggression is said to erupt because people feel more able, after consuming alcohol, to express their ‘true’ feelings or release ‘pent up’ emotions.  

This view finds some support in experimental psychology studies such as those by Taylor and the ‘popular’ view is given credence in many of the standard introductory textbooks (eg Deaux and Wrightsman). In these studies the typical design involves administration of varying degrees of alcohol, in the form of vodka and orange juice mixes, to subjects who are usually undergraduate students. These subjects are then placed in a ‘bogus’ experiment which often involves training another group (‘stooges’) to learn lists of words by delivering negative reinforcement, in the form of electric shocks, when they make errors. The results typically show that subjects who have consumed the higher amounts of alcohol deliver shocks with greater frequency and/or intensity compared with subjects who have consumed lesser amounts of alcohol or no alcohol at all.

While these results initially appear convincing, there are many serious problems with both the methodology and the interpretation of the results. The first difficulty concerns the operationalising of the dependent variable of aggression. To what extent is the ‘legitimate’ delivery of mild electric shocks to stooges or other subjects conceptually equivalent to real-world aggression, as seen in the pub fight or street disorder? Secondly, to what extent can any results obtained in the very specific social context of the psychological laboratory be seen as relevant, in the absence of other data, to understanding social behaviour in the complex situations in which drink-related disorder normally occurs? Thirdly, to what extent may student subjects be role-playing perceived conventional responses to alcohol following self-monitoring of the effects of their alcohol consumption. Students are notoriously ‘helpful’ in laboratory experiments, which is why one tends to use them. (It is interesting to note that in one of Taylor’s studies, administration of tetra hydra cannabinol (cannabis) resulted in effects quite opposite to those in which alcohol was administered. Here again one suspects that subjects might have been role-playing the ‘peace-love’ response which one conventionally associates with cannabis smoking.)

That alcohol produces a range of physiological changes is not in dispute. The question is one concerning the relationship between such changes and aggressive responses. Here we encounter further problems. Firstly, the physiological effects themselves are varied and non-specific. As Brain (1990) points out, while some substances, such as morphine, affect a single receptor site, alcohol "changes the lipid environment of neurons and it seems to alter virtually every index of neurophysiological action in particular components of the nervous system". Brain goes on to point out that "alcohol ingestion has profound effects on the endocrine system (hormonal disturbances can account for some behavioural changes) and …  [it] influences its own dynamics of exposure by modifying the efficiencies of the liver and the kidneys."

Brain concludes, after extensive review of the extant scientific literature, that "The recent reviews have generally shared my conclusion that the precise proportion of interpersonal violence caused by alcohol cannot be identified from available data. However, studies … strongly suggest an association between protracted alcohol ingestion and residual impairment of cognitive-perceptual functioning".

The last comment by Brain is significant because theoretical approaches concerning the links between alcohol and aggression have focused increasingly on both cognitive and perceptual factors. Before considering such models, however, a number of other issues regarding the interpretation of alleged links between alcohol and certain types of behaviour need to be addressed - principally the observed correlations between drinking and certain types of crime, including disorderly and violent behaviour.

As we note in the section dealing with police statistics (Appendix A) and that which focuses on drink-related disorder in Coventry, there is, indeed, an apparent association between alcohol consumption and arrests for disorder. Of those arrested for public disorder offences in Coventry in 1989, nearly 70% had been drinking. Other widely available data show more general links between drinking and a range of crimes, including assaults and some types of acquisitive offences. To social scientists, however, such correlations can rarely be taken as evidence of a causal connection, even in large-scale epidemiological studies. Alternative explanations might involve, for example, the possible role played by additional mediating factors or more ‘global’ influences which may be responsible for changes in both independent and dependent measures.

In the case of links between alcohol consumption and arrests for certain kinds of offence there may be a very parsimonious alternative explanation. Could it be that people who are drunk are more likely to bungle their crimes and, therefore, are more likely to be caught? A disorderly person attacking others in the street after the pubs have closed may, in his befuddled state, fail to observe the approaching police officers and end up as yet one more example of the perpetrator of a ‘drink-related’ crime. Our observations in the charge rooms of police stations (see Appendix C) certainly confirm that the police have no difficulty in apprehending individuals who, apart from committing crimes, are unable to stand or who make confused comments such as "Every time I get nicked I get drunk".

A further problem with such data is that we have no control measures. While we have details about the proportion of offenders who had been drinking prior to the commission of their crimes, we do not have the same information about non-offenders. We can only begin to infer a possible causal link between alcohol and disorder if the levels of consumption among offenders are significantly greater than that among non-offenders and alternative explanations, such as the increased probability of detection of drunk, as opposed to sober, offenders can be ruled out.

From our own extensive observation and interview research it is quite clear that among the population of inebriated individuals one encounters in town and city centres on Friday and Saturday nights, only a very small proportion commit acts of disorder. Even if arrest figures do not fully represent the true scale of disorderly and violent behaviour, because of problems of detection and apprehension, it is quite clear that the vast majority of drinkers do not engage in aggressive acts, nor do they commit crimes. Of those that do, we find no evidence, whether from official statistics or our own qualitative material, to indicate that they have consumed significantly more alcohol than their non-offending peers. Indeed, we would find it surprising if those arrested in town centres on Friday and Saturday nights had not been drinking since the main purpose of being in such places at those times is to do just that.

Better support for links between alcohol and aggression come from analyses of data relating to the times at which offences of disorder and violence are committed, although here again there are some problems of interpretation.Typically, one finds that roughly 50% of all relevant offences are committed on Friday and Saturday nights with distinct peaks following pub closing times. These are times when alcohol consumption and inebriation are undoubtedly at a peak. Even though the majority of inebriated individuals are law-abiding, the fact that the levels of offending appear to reach a maximum at times which coincide with the highest levels of consumption may be taken as indicative of some, as yet unspecified, causal chain.

Given that some association between drinking and aggression may exist, although the precise degree of this association is hard to specify, we require an explanatory model which provides both a credible account of these links and accords with observed real-life behaviour. To this end we propose a synthesis of approaches which not only have clear theoretical merit but which also enable us to understand more clearly and satisfactorily the events and patterns of social activity with which we have been concerned in our research.

Cognitive and perceptual approaches

The work of Pernanen and others provides us with a model which has considerable explanatory power. It focuses on well-established effects of alcohol and sees these as having an indirect impact on various types of behaviour, including aggressive responses. At a basic level, alcohol interferes with primary cognitive ability by reducing the perceptual field. An intoxicated individual cannot ‘take in’ as much information from his immediate surroundings and social context as he can when he is not intoxicated. The information he uses in order to guide his responses is increasingly limited in proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed. This is quite apparent to anyone who has watched people getting steadily drunk.

As inebriation increases, individuals begin to focus on small parts of the situation  one at a time because their ability to perceive the situation as a whole becomes steadily diminished. This, in turn, results in their own reactions fluctuating, depending on which part of the situation they are paying attention to. As Gibbs comments, "In addition, because impressions are based on a small sample of the information available about a situation, these impressions are unstable. A change in a couple of bits of information or environmental cues, which may occur sometimes by chance, can radically affect one’s perception of the situation. It is similar to trying to identify an entire tune on the basis of a few notes. A slight change in the way a note is played or the addition or subtraction of a note can change your identification entirely".

This lack of stability in the perception of a situation increases the risk of misunderstandings, misinterpretations and, therefore, of increased feelings of hostility and aggressive responses. It is an effect which all people with experience of inebriation will recognise and underlies the common phenomenon of ‘the booze talking’. The argumentative, and sometimes belligerent, nature of the drunk reflects his inability to maintain clear perceptions of others’ talk, actions and intentions.

Pernanen’s model, especially in the form revised by Gibbs, also identifies the role of secondary cognitive effects of alcohol. These consist, primarily, of diminished intellectual and linguistic ability. Put simply, people who have consumed substantial amounts of alcohol cannot think or speak so clearly. These effects become particularly relevant because of a further assumption that most people use coping mechanisms at this level of cognitive functioning to inhibit aggressive responses or to substitute more acceptable social behaviours – eg calm argument. We can normally cope with other people’s irritations by, firstly, seeing them in a wider context – as just one facet of their behavioural repertoire – and secondly, using sound judgement in not responding directly to such facets because ‘keeping the peace’, for example, may be seen as a superordinate consideration. As alcohol both reduces our ability to see things in context, and impairs our ability to respond rationally, the increased potential for aggression and even violence becomes apparent.

We have previously employed this model in our work on problems inside pubs. (Conflict and violence in pubs, MCM 1990, summarised in Appendix D). One clear implication of the model is that an aggressive or abrasive ‘atmosphere’ in a pub will provide exactly the kind of ‘fuel’ that a Pernanen-type model requires for aggressive behaviour to occur. There must be elements which are capable of misperception and misunderstanding before cognitive impairments can lead to emotional, rather than rational responses. By reducing, as much as possible, these stimuli, the theory predicts a significant concomitant decline in aggressive behaviour. Thus, for example, attention is paid to the management style of licensees and the manner in which staff interact with customers in order to minimise hostile interpersonal signals and regulate the general ‘mood’ which is engendered among the clientele. The demonstrable success of training programmes designed around these principles gives us confidence in the real-world applicability of the model as a whole.


A number of theoretical models predict that intoxicated individuals will be more likely to respond aggressively to frustration than those who have not consumed alcohol. (See discussion in Gustafson (1984). The Frustration - Aggression model, originally conceived by Dollard et al (1939) but substantially revised by, among others, Berkowitz (1978), defines frustration as ‘interference in goal-directed activity’. Frustrating events produce a ‘readiness for aggression’ which, if ‘triggered’ can result in aggressive responses. The presence of a trigger, or ‘cue’ is quite critical. Frustration, on its own, will not produce aggressive or violent behaviour. But the trigger may be a small element of behaviour which would normally be overlooked in the absence of the frustration. A casual remark or mild rebuke may, in cases of extreme frustration, be more than sufficient to evoke a response which seems, to rational observers, to be totally out of proportion or ‘over the top’. To the frustrated individual it is ‘the last straw’. (The fact that we have so many common-language terms to describe the effects which the model predicts is, in our opinion, a good indication of the real-life applicability of the model).

Pernanen’s model helps us to understand quite clearly why alcohol might lead to more extreme responses to frustration, through primary and secondary cognitive impairment. We can also see how frustration may be an important factor in explaining violence both within licensed premises and in town and city centres.


The cross-cultural evidence, including that which we present in Section 6, clearly indicates the extent to which the effects of alcohol are dependent on culturally defined expectations of behaviour. Where cultural traditions tolerate aggressive and disorderly behaviour in drinking contexts, such behaviour is more likely to occur than in cultures where such activities are strongly proscribed. In Britain we seem to have ambivalent attitudes concerning alcohol and its behavioural consequences. On the one hand, popular opinion decries the activities of ‘lager louts’ and drunken ‘thugs’. On the other, it tacitly subscribes to a sentiment which equates ‘manliness’ with being able to ‘hold one’s drink’ and expects aggression to result from high levels of consumption. Being aggressive is seen as a ‘normal’ response after drinking.

What is striking about the Italian research material (see Section 6) is that the expectation of aggression in drinking contexts is almost completely absent in that country. Instead, quite different expectations of increased sociability are dominant. In addition, most Italians fail to understand the British view that drinking increases the probability of violence and disorder. To Italians, strong drink is something one gives to aggressively charged individuals in order to calm them down.

The existence of such differing expectations explains, at least in part, why there should also be differences in drink-associated behaviour. In Pernanen’s model, even the most cognitively impaired inebriate will have some appreciation of how his reactions will be perceived by others. In contexts where there is mild tolerance of drunken belligerence – on the basis that it is perhaps the fault of the drink, not the person – aggressive responses will be facilitated. Where there is no such tolerance, and where individuals who behave aggressively after drinking are subjected to ridicule, aggressive responses will be inhibited.

Integration of perspectives

Figure 4.1 shows how the three perspectives above may be integrated into a single explanatory model. Here the ‘atmosphere’ of the immediate social situation and cultural expectations are added to a basic Pernanen-type model of cognitive impairment. The role of frustration is seen as a significant, though not essential, mediator between secondary cognitive impairment and aggressive responses, as ‘filtered’ by the cultural expectation component.

Our model differs from that presented by other workers in this field not only in the additional ‘levels’ of mediating variables, but also in the theoretical ‘outcomes’ of drinking. The probability of interpersonal aggression is increased when the effects of cognitive impairment are ‘amplified’ by both the characteristics of the immediate situation and by popular assumptions that aggression is a ‘normal’ reaction to drinking. However, where both the immediate social situation is free from aggression and where cultural expectations inhibit aggression, the probability of interpersonal aggression following drinking will be reduced.

The advantage of this approach is that it explains why some cultures, such as our own, experience problems with drink-related aggression and disorder while others, such as Italy, Spain etc., do not. The same psychological mechanisms operate universally, but the behavioural consequences are modified both by the social contexts in which drinking takes place and cultural traditions which either inhibit or facilitate aggression in such contexts. We feel that the model fits well with the research material presented in subsequent sections of this report, which derives both from this country and from others in mainland Europe.