Friday Weird Science: Beer vs Liquor, which one makes you anger quicker?

Nov 23 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

I'm sure you all have heard "Beer before liquor, never sicker. Liquor before beer, everything clear"? Whether or not it's true (and honestly, it's not true), most people talk about differences in alcoholic drinks. Some people love wine, some people get horrible wine headaches. Some people are happy with beer, others find it makes them sleepy. Some people think whiskey is great, while others report it makes them fighting machines.

Well, does it really? They're both, at the bottom, alcoholic drinks, but do beer and liquor have different effects on how we behave? And I'm talking more than just the hangover.


Pihl et al. "´╗┐Alcohol and aggression in men: a comparison of brewed and distilled beverages." Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1984.

We all know that there's a...relationship, shall we say, between alcohol drinking and aggressive behavior, though not quite as strong as the associationg between alcohol drinking and, you know, drunkenness. Some of this is probably placebo effect. But is there a difference in the amount of aggressiveness by the TYPE of alcohol consumed?

While several studies have approached this question using things like brandy and small, uncontrolled interpersonal groups, this one decided to do a somewhat alcohol-fueled take on the Milgrom study.

They started with 64 male social drinkers (excluding people who have been arrested as a result of drinking or those positive for drinking problems), excluding heavy drinkers who might have a high tolerance affecting the study.

They then dosed 'em up with alcohol. For the beer condition, the subjects received either 21.3 mL/kg of beer or "placebo" non-alcoholic beer. For the liquor condition, the subjects got 1.32 mL/kg of 95% ethanol in 1:5 orange juice mixture (otherwise known as a screwdriver). In the placebo condition, the just got the orange juice, with 2 mL of alcohol layered on top and were served it in a cloth sprayed with alcohol, to make them think alcohol was in the drink. The subjects had 20 minutes in which to consume the drinks (given in 3 allotments), and the dosing was designed to result in a blood alcohol level of 0.07, just under the legal limit for driving. The subjects were then asked how drunk they felt on a scale of 1-11 (with 1 being not drunk, and 11 being probably so drunk they couldn't distinguish the 1's).

Here you can see the drunkeness ratings and the blood alcohol levels. The first, rather amusing, difference that you can observe is that the placebo group for both drinks still felt a little tipsy, even though they hadn't had measurable levels of alcohol. The liqour group rated about 4.5-4.6 on "drunkeness", while the liquor placebo was around 2.1-2.4. The beer group rated a little lower on "drunkeness" (3.9-4.0), while the placebo beer group rated a little higher (2.6-2.7), making me wonder how much of the feeling was due to fullness rather than alcohol for the placebo beer group.

Once the subjects were good and soused (or not), they put them in an aggressiveness task. The participants were given what they were told was a "reaction time and pain assessment" task, which they would administer to a fellow participant in another room (actually an operant conditioning board). The participant saw a light, and then administered a tone to the "fellow participant". After 5 seconds, the participant was told to press any one of the 5 numbers on his keyboard. All of the buttons terminated the tone and delivered a shock to the "fellow participant". While button 1 delivered the most minor shock, buttons 2-5 delivered increasing levels of "pain" to the participant. The "fellow participant" (the computer), then communicated the level of pain that they had felt with the shock. During each test, the authors recorded the strength of shock delivered and the time that the participant spent smashing the button.

What the authors found was that, while there was no difference in the shock intensity delivered (the participants divided bringing the pain, concentrating more on the level 1, which was 27% of responses, and the least on level 5, 12%), there was a significant different in how LONG the participants spent pressing the shock button.

What you can see is that the placebo beer group didn't spend a lot of time pressing the button (very fast, short responses). The beer group spent more time, and the liquor and placebo liquor group spend the most time, spending about 0.8s pressing each button. The authors suggest that this indicated significantly more aggression in the liquor (and placebo liquor) group, as compared to the beer group, and compare it to previous studies with a similar paradigm looking at racism (white people give lower, but longer, shocks to black people than to white people, which is interpreted as a indirect measure of aggression).

Me, I'm not so sure. I do think it's interesting (and amusing), that THINKING you had alcohol in this task is apparently just as good as actually having alcohol (at least, when it comes to liquor).

Of course, this study didn't take into account several things:

1. A person's drinking history: do you commonly drink beer? Liquor? Neither? How much? They screened for problem drinkers but didn't really control for how much alcohol people really drank. Similar, they didn't control for WHAT people commonly drank.

2. How aggressive were their subjects generally? They did ask about problem drinking, excluding people over 7 (7! Something about Canada?) drinks per day, and they asked about arrests in associated with alcohol, but they didn't ask about aggression or make them take baseline tests for aggression, so they well could have gotten a skewed group.

3. This type of social study is just one type of aggressive behavior, and is one that is, particularly, not PROVOKED aggression. No one is doing anything to the participant, they are administering aggression but not responding to it. It'd be interesting to see how beer vs liquor compared in, say, a virtual driving test with road rage. Or in response to provoked situations, like a simulated phone confrontation with an actor.

4. You're making grown men drink screwdrivers. You think they might be a little insulted? Heck, I haven't had one of those since college! Sure, some people like them, and you need to hide the alcohol in something, but you'd think they could maybe fake a jack and coke or something a little more stereotypically masculine.

5. Where the heck are the error bars! One graph and you can't put error bars?! Humph. My cynical side says this means the error bars were probably very large and ugly (especially considering the spread, which is only between 0.5 and 0.8 seconds).

6. What about looking at duration as a result of how drunk the participants were feeling? If you were feeling drunk, you'd probably have a slower reaction time (see the liquor condition), which might impact the time you spend pressing the button without it having anything to do with aggression.

7. The placebo liquor group spent just as much time pressing the button as the real alcohol group. Is there something about thinking you're drinking liquor that might impact the results? I think they could control for that by running a survey asking about people's attitudes to liquor.

But hey, if you're looking for a more relaxed time, maybe stick with the beer instead of the whiskey.

Author's note: the following post was written while consuming an alcoholic beverage of the beer variety, specifically the Sierra Nevada Tumbler. One can only assume that I am less aggressive in this post than I would have been, had I been consuming whiskey. Or a screwdriver, for that matter.

Pihl RO, Smith M, & Farrell B (1984). Alcohol and aggression in men: a comparison of brewed and distilled beverages. Journal of studies on alcohol, 45 (3), 278-82 PMID: 6748672

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