Even though humans have been getting drunk since the stone age, it has always been a mystery why boozy beverages affect everyone differently. While many bar flies think that it depends on the type of liquor you drink, the real answer might have more to do with what’s in your genes, and how you act is worth paying attention to.
Finnish-ing the Bottle
To better understand why people respond differently to drinking, researchers at the University of Helsinki looked at the genomes of people who act exceptionally recklessly while drunk. Surprisingly, they discovered that a mutation in a gene of the serotonin 2B receptor can cause individuals to act more impulsively. The effect is magnified while drinking, though as a researcher on the study comments, “persons with this mutation are more impulsive by nature even when sober, and they are more likely to struggle with self-control or mood disorders.”
The University of Helsinki in Finland, where they have a word for drinking by yourself with no intention of going out: kalsarikännit.
Booze’s Impact on Personality Traits
The phenomenon of different behaviors when drunk is certainly not limited to Finland. Last year, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia in South Carolina published their findings from a fascinating look at that hotbed of alcoholic insight, conversations with college drinking buddies.
Specifically, the academics interviewed 187 pairs of students who frequently drank together about the “big five” personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism – and how they are different when sober versus drunk. The discussions also touched on frequency of consumption and negative consequences such as regrettable sex, alcohol addiction, and lower grades.
The results were used to cluster respondents into four profiles of drunks, helpfully named after the literary characters which best personify them:
- Cluster 1 – ‘‘Hemingway’’: The largest group, these people are roughly average across all “big five” categories when sober, with only moderate decreases while drinking, making them “less affected” – similar to the group’s namesake, who could ‘‘drink hells any amount of whiskey without getting drunk’’.
- Cluster 2 – ‘‘Mary Poppins’’: These individuals are characterized primarily by being very agreeable when sober, and remaining so much more than the average when drunk.
- Cluster 3 – “Mr. Hyde”: When drunk, this group becomes less responsible, less intellectual, and more hostile.
- Cluster 4 – “The Nutty Professor”: This group benefits most from the liquid courage, with their extraversion going from low to high as they go from sober to drunk.
Curiously, even though Nutty Professor group showed the most dramatic behavioral changes, they did not report equally dramatic negative consequences. In fact, the study found that the Mr. Hyde cluster was “statistically more likely to experience alcohol consequences, suggesting that individuals in this group not only embody less savory personality characteristics when drunk, but also incur acute harm from their drinking”. In other words, they may be more predisposed to “alcohol-use disorder”.
Table of results from University of Missouri-Columbia study.
This diagnosis, a relatively new classification from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), is defined as “problem drinking that becomes severe.” As NIAAA director George Koob explains, “It could be somebody who’s gotten several DUIs. It could be that you just wake up hungover a lot. If you plan to binge over the weekend and miss some classes because of it, then maybe you already have a problem.”
Last year a survey revealed that around 32 million Americans dealt with a serious alcohol problem in the last year alone, and that nearly one-third will deal with an alcohol-use disorder during their lifetime. With new insights like these however, we may get better at identifying people at risk and minimizing the negative effects of alcohol.