Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Alcohol and emotion

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The effects of alcohol on emotion:
How and why do our emotions change because of alcohol?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Assorted Shots

Alcohol has a predominant place in the world and has been used by people all throughout history. Alcohol is used for a number of reasons, a few including but not limited to drinking to celebrate, to be sociable, for pleasure, relaxation, enhanced creativity, mood alteration, boredom, habit, cultural participation, addiction, tradition, due to peer influence, to escape or forget and to ‘drown sorrows’ (NHMRC, 2011). As can be seen, the reasons to drink are extensive. In moderate amounts alcohol relaxes people and reduces anxiety (Gilman, Ramchandani, Davis, Bjork, & Hommer, 2008). These effects are not necessarily bad, however considering that alcohol is the most commonly abused drug - meaning that it is not being consumed in moderation, the effects can be far more extreme and problematic (Kalat, 2013).

Most Australian’s have tried alcohol at some point in their lives and while most that drink do so in moderated amounts that have low negative effects, it is cautioned that any level of alcohol consumption increases the risk of health problems later in life and injury (Carr, 2011). The National Drug Strategy Household Survey (2008) indicated that around 90 per cent of Australian adults had tried alcohol in their life time. Of that of that 90 per cent, over 83 per cent had consumed at least one alcoholic beverage in the past 12 months and 41 per cent reported to drink on a weekly basis (Carr, 2011).

The focus of this chapter is to examine the effects that alcohol has on people’s emotions and which social and biological factors influence the effects. First, short descriptions of emotion and alcohol will be given separately so that they can be understood as separate entities before combining them and looking at the surrounding theories such as physiological theories and cognitive theories. Make sure you pay attention as you might find that a few questions will pop up later on in this chapter.

General information[edit | edit source]

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Emotions[edit | edit source]

In order to develop an in depth understanding of the effects that alcohol have on emotions, it is important to fist understand emotion. Defining emotion is more difficult that one would originally assume. To make understanding emotion easier, there are three key points to be looked at:

  1. What is an emotion
  2. What causes emotion
  3. How many emotions are there

Firstly, emotion can be defined as complex states of feelings that result in physical and psychological changes that influence behaviour and thought (Myers, 2004). Emotions are multidimensional as they are subjective, biological, and purposive (Izard, 1993). Simply put, emotions are what make us feel a particular way, such as happy, frightened, angry or stressed (Haslam, 2007). There are four components of emotion, these components are: feeling, arousal, purposive and expressive phenomena (Reeve, 2009). Emotion is the psychological construct which connects and directs these four aspects of experience into a pattern - emotion choreographs the feeling, arousal, purposive and expressive components into a reaction (Reeve, 2009).

The next step is to understand what causes emotions. Many viewpoints come into play when trying to determine what causes emotion. Despite there being a number of ideas, understanding what causes emotions typically comes down to two thoughts: biology and cognition. There is a vast debate in the field trying to determine whether emotions are primarily biological or cognitive, however no consensus has been reached (Reeve, 2009).

Cognitive VS. Biological.jpg

If our emotions stem from biological factors, they should be caused by a biological core, such as bodily arousal and social expressive factors (neuroanatomical brain circuits); where as if they are predominantly cognitive they should derive from mental effects (Reeve, 2009). Those who take the side of cognition being the predominant factor which causes emotion including Lazarus, Scherer and Weiner, argue that individuals cannot respond emotionally unless they cognitively evaluate the meaning and personal significance of an event first, thus meaning is established and then emotion follows accordingly, e.g., is it relevant to my well being? Or is important? (Reeve, 2009). Enthusiasts of the biological approach such as Izard, Ekman and Panksepp argue that emotions occur without a prior cognitive event, but they cannot occur without a biological event. They state that emotional reactions do not require cognitive evaluations but rather subcortical neural activity (the portion of the brain immediately below the cerebral cortex) or facial expressions are the key for activating emotion (Reeve, 2009). While there is no clear winner, together the biological and cognitive perspectives provide a picture of what causes emotions.

The final question to be answered is how many emotions are there? Everyone, despite if they are pro cognitive or pro biological can agree that there are dozens of emotions. This debate is more concerned with which emotions are more fundamental or more basic than others (Ekman & Davidson, 1994). A suggested method of solving this problem was suggested by Ekman (1992, 1994) who proposed that each basic emotion is not merely a single emotion, rather it is a family of closely related emotions. Take for example the emotion 'anger' - in this emotional family rage, fury, hostility, frustration, envy and resentment are all included together under the umbrella of anger (Ekman, 1994). What is essential is that each member of the so called family share the same characteristics as the basic emotion - that is, its physiology, feeling state and its expressive characteristics. Within Ekman's (1994) model, emotions are broken down into five family groups anger, fear, disgust, sadness and enjoyment. The answer to how many emotions are there depends on the perspective one takes, however most lists of emotion will be made up of six basic emotions: anger, fear, distrust, sadness, joy and interest(Kemper, 1987).

Alcohol[edit | edit source]

Alcohol or ethyl alcohol is a psychoactive drug and one of the oldest recreational drugs known, its structural formula is CH3CH2OH. It is a colourless liquid which is also commonly referred to as pure alcohol, grain alcohol, spirits or simply just as alcohol, throughout this chapter it will be referred to as alcohol. Alcohol is found in alcoholic beverages and when it is consumed it produces a state of alcohol intoxication.

Alcohol has become much more readily available in Australia over recent decades. The average volume of alcohol consumed per year has remained relatively stable since 1991; however there have been drastic changes in the patterns of consumption and beverage preference, these changes are seen particularly among young drinkers who opt for fruity, pre-mixed drinks and spirits and display informal drinking styles, such as not drinking for an occasion, rather to purposefully get intoxicated (NHMRC, 2011). Wider spread and less controlled drinking is predicted to have detrimental effects on people's health and well being as well as their emotions

Different emotions[edit | edit source]

Have you ever come home from a rough day and wanted nothing more than a drink to take the edge off? Or maybe you are on holidays and an ice cold beer or a cocktail or two would really hit the spot? Our emotions are not only changed by alcohol, they also shape why we drink and then these emotions become more radical and subject to change.

Different situations[edit | edit source]

The situation that somebody is in can also sway the effects that alcohol will have on emotion. For example, somebody having social drinks at their grandparent’s house is far more likely to drink more conservatively and aim to contain their emotions than somebody who is down at the pub or at a music concert with a group of friends drinking like they do not have a care in the world.

Major theories[edit | edit source]

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Alcohol myopia[edit | edit source]


Alcohol myopia is a cognitive-physiological theory on alcohol abuse which proposes that individuals are unable to attend to all relevant cues in the environment simultaneously because of the limitation of cognitive capacity due to intoxication(Giancola, Duke, & Ritz, 2011). In contrast individuals who are not intoxicated are not as easily influenced by salient cues as they are more able to attend to all of the relevant information in the environment rather than on just one. Through this theory alcohol’s stress reducing and social effects are explained as a consequence of narrowing perceptual and cognitive functioning which occurs when alcohol is consumed (Giancola et al., 2011).

As mentioned the core of the alcohol myopia theory states that alcohol produces a myopia or a short-sighted effect that causes intoxicated persons to primarily focus their attention on, and be more influenced by salient environmental cues, thus paying less attention to less relevant cues (Giancola et al., 2011). This focus shift occurs because alcohol has a dampening effect on the processing ability of the brain in terms of attention capacity. Consequently, the brain processes the most important and simple cues (salient cues) which leads people to make highly simplistic conclusions in what are actually complicated matters (Giancola et al., 2011). For example, according to this theory, an intoxicated individual in an aggressive environment is far more likely to act aggressively themselves because the dangerous cues are more prominent. Studies have also shown that if inhibitory cues are more salient, intoxicated individuals can be even calmer than sober individuals (Giancola et al., 2011).

Within the theory of alcohol myopia, it is explained that alcohol makes social responses more extreme, relieves anxiety and depression, and enhances important self evaluations; these effects emphasise the social destructiveness of alcohol and also the reinforcing effects which make it such an addictive and widely consumed and abused substance (Steele & Josephs, 1990). Alcohol myopia can be broken down into three central traits:

  1. Drunken excess: alcohol makes social behaviours more extreme by blocking a form of response conflict
  2. Self inflation: the tendency to inflate self evaluations
  3. Drunken relief: alcohol myopia in conjunction with distracting stimuli can reduce depression and anxiety by making it difficult to allocate attention to the thoughts that provoke these states, thus those who drink worry less and pay less attention to their worries (Steele et al, 1990).

Cognitive theories[edit | edit source]

Alcohol has far-reaching physiological and psychological effect on humans and their emotions; it affects the brain and consequently our emotions and our behaviours. Some of the most noted effects are on our cognitive abilities. For example, researchers have found that alcohol reduces fear anticipation and response inhibition by impairing our cognitive-processing capacity (Curtin, Patrick, Lang, Cacioppo & Birbaumer, 2003). This explains the daring and impulsive behaviour often demonstrated by intoxicated individuals. There are three main cognitive models that explain the effects of alcohol on emotion, the self awareness model (Hull 1981), the attention allocation model and the appraisal disruption model. Each will be further looked at in turn.

Self awareness[edit | edit source]

Hull’s (1981) self awareness model outlined that alcohol reduces one’s ability to respond to information regarding the self by impairing the cognitive processing of self relevant information. He explains that in situations where the feedback is unpleasant, drinking alcohol provides a form of relief from the caused emotional discomfort (Werner, 1996). Hull et al, (1981) found that individuals that were high in self consciousness were more sensitive to self-relevant, affect arousing cues, and that alcohol provided a way of lowering their reactivity in comparison to that of low self conscious individuals(Werner, 1996). The individual differences in autonomic reactivity as a function of dispositional self consciousness were not evident in intoxicated participants; this was interoperated as alcohol reduced self-conscious cognition. Hull then proposed that people with high levels of self awareness drink more when in the context of unpleasant affective cues because the reduction in awareness of the negative event is essentially reinforcement (Werner, 1996).

Attention allocation[edit | edit source]

Similarly to the self awareness model, the attention model states that alcohol intoxication alters one’s affective experience through its effects on information processing. However this model states that alcohol impairs cognitive activity which needs controlled, effortful processing and limits attention to the most immediate internal and external cues (also found in the alcohol myopia theory). What this means is that psychological stress is reduced as a result of intense interaction (Werner, 1996). Although consuming extreme levels of alcohol can prevent worry about upcoming stressors by disturbing the thought, the extent to which lower doses reduce worry depends on the combined effects of how much intoxication reduces attention capacity and how much of the available attention resources are directed at the distracters this suggests that the more one’s attention is occupied by a distracting activity, the more likely that anxiety will be reduced (Werner, 1996). It is also noted that if the distraction is great enough, anxiety can be reduced even without alcohol. There is a major problem with drinking and relying on external distractions to reduce anxiety, in the absence of distraction, intoxication will not minimise stress or anxiety, rather it will increase it by intensifying levels of attention towards it (Werner, 1996).

Human head and brain diagram.svg

Appraisal disruption[edit | edit source]

The above attention allocation model provides the building blocks of the appraisal disruption model. In the appraisal disruption model, simultaneous distractions during processing of emotional information are just one way in which appraisal of the information can be disrupted (Werner, 1996). The other way proposes that alcohol acts pharmacologically to interfere with the initial evaluation of stressful information by containing the spread of activation of associated information previously in long term memory (Werner, 1996). Simply put, a prediction of this model is that people who are unaware of a stressor when consuming alcohol are far more likely to demonstrate stress response dampening than those who learnt about the stressor before drinking. In the scenario where the stressor is learnt of before consuming alcohol, alcohol may actually increase the stress response (Werner, 1996). To summarise, cognitive theories of alcohol-emotion relations come together on the view that alcohol’s influence on affective reactivity is not due to the primary brain motivational systems, but rather through its effect on higher order information processing centers that participate in emotional regulation.

Physiological and psychological effects[edit | edit source]

Cloud 9 - round 2.jpg

The physiological effects of alcohol are extensive as alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, it has both immediate and cumulative effects, but the most immediate effects of alcohol are on the brain, beginning with feelings of relaxation, wellbeing and a loss of self consciousness. These effects are not typically characterised as bad, however, as the consumption of alcohol increases the effects become more detrimental. The original effects are counterbalanced by less pleasant effects including, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness and loss of balance, however as the alcohol consumption continues, the effects can be life threatening as unconsciousness and abnormal-obstructed breathing occurs (Kalat, 2013). Alcohol related harm stems not only from the quantity of alcohol consumed as everybody is different, it also stems from a combination of their sex, body size, age, nutrition, genetics, metabolism and experience in drinking (Kalat, 2013).

It is important to understand how alcohol affects the brain. Alcohol decreases brain activity, but how? Alcohol affects neurons in the brain; it facilitates responses at the GABA receptor which is the brain's main inhibitory site. It also blocks activity at the glutamine receptors, the brain's predominant excitatory site (Kalat, 2013). Both the GABA and the glutamine effect lead to a decrease in brain activity (Tsai et al., 1998). This explains why alcohol is often described as a stimulant, but really it is only because alcohol decreases brain activity in the areas which are in charge of restraining risky behaviours. Alcohol also has an effect on dopamine receptors (neurotransmitter responsible for the reward and pleasure centre) which are stimulated by alcohol resulting in feelings of pleasure (Chaudhri, Sahuque, & Janak, 2009).

Exercise : Imagine the scenario

Imagine a group of young women out on the town for their friends hens party - a notoriously fun and girly night which is fueled along by alcohol in the form of cocktails, beers and shots. The women in the group are out at a bar and having a great time, the predominant emotions being joy and excitement for their dear friend who is about to be married. A few drinks into the night and these emotions become far more flamboyant, with the whole bar now well aware of just how excited these girls are. This continues on for a good part of the night and then one of the girls suggest they should all do shots.

One shot...

Two shots...

Three shots...

By now the alcohol is really taking effect on these women. One of the bridesmaids turns around from the bar with a fresh drink in hand and accidentally bumps into a stranger waiting in line - the drink spills all over her dress. To say the least she is not pleased and does not try to hide her anger, she screams insults at the hens-party-goer and tells her exactly what she thinks. The woman apologizes and returns to her group of friends, shaken up and no longer having a good time. Even though the situation was horrible and would stir most of us, our bridesmaid friend cannot let it go and begins to cry hysterically. The crying continues well into the night but the cause has now shifted from being yelled at to 'I can't believe you are getting married and I'm not. Why does no one love me?!!"

Does this sound like a likely scenario?

While this is a made up scenario, it depicts how our emotions become more erratic and unpredictable as more alcohol is consumed and also how our environment effects our emotion.

Positive effects[edit | edit source]

Alcohol's Defense.jpg

The negative effects of alcohol on emotion have been explained, but was has not been looked at is if there are any positive effects that are brought about on our emotions by alcohol. A few of the side effects looked at such as: reduced levels of anxiety, increased feelings of relaxation and wellbeing and becoming less self conscious were all explained as being not necessarily bad, but can they also be seen a positive outcomes. Positive effects of alcohol would make sense, as so many people worldwide consume it, and not for the well documented negative effects. Cooper (1995) explains that drinking alcohol to regulate or enhance the quality of their emotional experiences is widely accepted. Evidence indicates that individuals drink alcohol not only to reduce or manage feelings of anxiety and unhappiness but to enhance their positive emotional experiences as well (Cooper, 1995). According to Wills and Shiffman (1985), people use alcohol both to enhance positive effects when they are aroused and to reduce negative affect when they are anxious (Cooper, 1995). These views are widely held and consistent with numerous studies which similarly found that manipulations eliciting both positive and negative effects have been demonstrated. For these reasons – reducing negative affect and enhancing positive affect are two widely agreed upon reasons for initial and repetitive alcohol use (Cooper, 1995).

When do positive effects turn into negative effects?

Model of alcohol use as an emotion management strategy

As was prior mentioned, positive effects of alcohol consumption turn into negative ones when too much alcohol is consumed and/or when a person’s environment changes from enjoyable to uncomfortable (Werner, 1996).

There are also more serious negative, long term effects that can be seen with alcohol, such as alcohol dependency and alcohol abusing. Data suggests that people who are motivated to drink to enhance enjoyment or to reduce negative affect are more motivated to drink more and more often and are at greater risk of developing alcohol problems (Cooper, 1995).


A quiz to really get you thinking!

1 Is alcohol a...


2 Alcohol myopia can be broken down into three main parts

Self inflation, Drunken courage, Drunken inhibitions
Drunken excess, Self inflation, Drunken relief

3 What are the two main viewpoints when explaining what causes emotion?

Biological, Social
Cognitive, Biological
Social, Environmental
Environmental, Cognitive

4 Which is not a reason to drink alcohol?

To relax
To celebrate
Enhanced creativity
To retain information
To "down sorrows"

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Alcohol plays a part in everyday life for a large number of people with most Australian’s reporting to have consumed alcohol at some point in their lives. It is used for a number of occasions, to celebrate, be sociable, enhance ones creativity, to forget, drown sorrows, reduce anxiety, out of boredom, habit and to relax. A wide range of empirical studies outline that alcohol does indeed have an effect on people’s emotions. These studies outline that there are a number of factors such as one’s mood before consuming alcohol and the atmosphere an intoxicated person is in will affect the ways in which alcohol effects our emotions. It can be seen that while alcohol typically has a wide array of negative effects, some of the effects can be positive – at least initially. Positive effects include a reduction in anxiety levels and lower self consciousness. In spite of these seemingly positive effects, it is emphasised that positive effects can lead to negative ones that can even have detrimental long term effects such as alcohol dependency. Numerous theories aim to explain why and how alcohol effects our emotions, popular theories include cognitive theories and the alcohol myopia theory. Alcohol is widely used worldwide and usually in moderation, however it is warned that any consumption of alcohol increases the likelihood of health problems later in life and increases the risk of physical injury.

YouTube video depicting poor decisions and erratic emotional changes due to alcohol

References[edit | edit source]

Bushman, B. J., & Cooper, H. M. (1990). Effects of alcohol on human aggression: An intergrative research review. Psychological Bulletin 107(3) 341-354. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.107.3.341

Carr, C. (2011). Alcohol Addiction. Retrieved from

Cooper, M. (1994). Motivations for alcohol use among adolescents: Development and validation of a four-factor model. Psychological Assessment, 6(2), 117-128. doi:10.1037/1040-3590.6.2.117

Cooper, L. M., Frone, M. R., Russell, M., & Mudar P. (1995). Drinking to regulate positive and negative emotions: A motivational Model of Alcohol Use. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69(5) 909-1005. doi:10:0022-3514/95/3.001995

Gaulin, S., & McBurney, D. H. (2003). Evolutionary psychology. Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-111529-3, 6, 121-142.

Giancola, P., Duke, A., & Ritz, K. (2011). Alcohol, violence, and the alcohol myopia model; Preliminary findings and implications for prevention. Addictive Behaviours 36, 1019-1022. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2011.05.006

Haslam, N. (2007). Introduction to personality and intelligence. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc.

McCollam, J. B., Burish, T. G., Maisto, S. A., & Sobell, M. B. (1980). Alcohol’s effects on physiological arousal and self-reported affect and sensations. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology, 89(2) 224-233. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.89.2.224

Myers, D. G. (2004). Theories of Emotion. Psychology (7th ed.), New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Newcomb, M. D., Chou, C., Bentler, P. M., & Huba, G. J. (1988). Cognitive motivations for drug use among adolescents: Longitudinal tests of gender differences and predictors of change in drug use. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 35(4), 426-438. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.35.4.426

Sayette, M. A., Creswell, K. G., Dimoff, J. D., Fairbairn, C. E., Cohn, J. F., Heckman, B. W., Kirchner, T. R., Levine, J. M., & Moreland, R. L. Alcohol and group formation: A multimodal investigation of the effects of alcohol on emotion and social bonding. Psychological Science, 23(8), 869 – 878. doi: 10.1177/0956797611435134

Stappenbeck, C. A., & Fromme, K. (2013). The effects of alcohol, emotion regulation, and emotional arousal on the dating aggression intentions of men and women. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0032204

Stritzke, W. K., Lang, A. R., & Patrick, C. J. (1996). Beyond stress and arousal: A reconceptualization of alcohol-emotion relations with reference to psychophysiological methods. Psychological Bulletin, 120(3), 376-395. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.120.3.376

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.) Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Steele, C. M., & Josephs, R. A. (1990). Alcohol myopia: Its prized and dangerous effects. American Psychologist 45(8) 921-933. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.45.8.921

World Health Organisation. (2011). Global status report on alcohol and health. Retrieved from

See also[edit | edit source]