Alcohol, violence and inhibitions

Debate has continued on whether alcohol causes violence or not. This started earlier this month with references to a study done by anthropologist Dr Anne Fox. Karl du Fresne in the Listener wrote about this in Bar None.

A recently published paper looks at alcohol and its associated social problems through an anthropological lens and concludes we’ve got it all wrong. It’s not booze that’s to blame for violence and antisocial behaviour – it’s us.

Understanding Behaviour in the Australian and New Zealand Night-Time Economies” is a paper by British anthropologist Anne Fox, who has studied drinking cultures for 20 years and worked as a consultant on substance misuse for the British Army.

A key finding is that despite a tightly regulated drinking environment, we accept a level of drunken behaviour that would not be tolerated in many other Western countries.

Scapegoating alcohol as the sole cause of violence, she argues, merely diverts attention from “maladaptive cultural norms” that allow New Zealand and Australian men to be violent and aggressive.

Fox blames our macho violent culture on violence more than the effects of drinking alcohol.

And Fox predicted:

Fox expects to be dismissed by some as a propagandist for the liquor industry, but insists that her contract with Lion stipulated no interference in her research, analysis or writing. “In fact, it was quite brave of Lion because it didn’t know what I was going to say or what the results would be.

Her researched has not just been dismissed, it has been slammed: Lion’s research suggesting booze has little relation to violence slammed by academics

Academics have slammed a report that weakens the link between alcohol and violence.

The report was funded by booze company Lion and took just seven weeks of research, suggesting alcohol has little to do with violent behaviour.

“It’s a report that’s completely flawed and it shouldn’t be informing policy on alcohol,” Nicki Jackson from the University of Auckland said.

“[The] biggest concern is that this report is being used by the alcohol industry, it’s getting into government circles to try and change the debate around alcohol harm reduction.”

“It’s just another attempt by the alcohol industry to try and create confusion and get in the way of good positive change in alcohol related harm,” Ms Jackson said.
Lion argues the alcohol industry should be involved in more research.

This has been picked up on by Anthony Robins (another ‘Academic’) at The Standard in Not all research is created equal.

Research, the scientific method, is the best tool we have for understanding the world. It isn’t a set of facts or dogma, it’s a process for evaluating hypotheses. Honest disagreement and changes in consensus are not evidence of flaws in the process, they are the process, it is “self repairing”.

Sadly however, there is material out there that dresses itself in the garb of research, but isn’t. It is paid for propaganda masquerading as science.

An anonymous editorial in The Herald yesterday managed to get straight to the heart of the issue:

“Academic research into public health problems has an uncanny way of confirming the concerns of its funder.”

Similar examples on a global scale include the “research” purporting to show no harm from smoking tobacco, and of course the climate change denial industry. It’s tragic but it’s true, in evaluating supposed research we need to apply the almost universally useful maxim – “follow the money”.

So Robins has slammed Fox, concluding her research is invalidated due to who funded it, without addressing any of her research apart from claiming:

Violence is part of our society yes – as are the inhibitions that hold violence in check.

Violence is far from held ‘in check’ in New Zealand. It is one of this country’s most insidious problems.

This report’s lie by omission is that alcohol weakens those inhibitions.

Accusing a researcher of lying ‘by omission’ is a serious accusation. Based on what? I don’t know if Robins has read the report. Here’s a link to it:

Understanding behaviour in the Australian and New Zealand night-time economies
An anthropological study by Dr Anne Fox

Starting on page 12 the report has a whole section on inhibitions.

Belief in Disinhibition

Key Points
– Alcohol is almost universally believed to be a ‘disinhibitor’: a substance that ‘loosens our inhibitions’.
– But inhibitions are rules that we follow and break only when we believe we have licence to and, as such, are largely socially, not chemically, determined.
– Likewise, in a large part, drunken comportment is also culturally determined and can largely be voluntarily engaged and disengaged even when alcohol has been consumed.
– Drunken comportment can be heavily influenced by situational cues that reinforce cultural norms.

The report continues on disinhibition for several pages including quotes and references. Robins doesn’t address any of this, he just accuses Fox of lying by omission.

In comments Magisterium challenges Robins’ accusation:

“This report’s lie by omission is that alcohol weakens those inhibitions”

It doesn’t. That’s just plain empirically untrue, in the same way that “vaccines cause autism” is untrue.

Alcohol does not “weaken inhibitions”. If you have learned through the lessons of your culture that the way you are supposed to act when drunk is stoic silence, then you will be a stoic silent drunk even if you were loud and gregarious before drinking.

If you act as if you have had your inhibitions weakened after drinking alcohol, that’s because your culture has taught you to do that. And you’ll act that way even if you’ve had a placebo that contains no alcohol.


alcohol consumption is disproportionately associated with violence and injury in a variety of cultures and settings. There is a clear association.


No, there isn’t. There just plain isn’t.

There are:

– societies in which drunkenness does not result in any ‘disinhibited’ behaviour at all

– societies in which the type of behaviour associated with drunkenness has undergone radical changes over time

– societies in which drunken behaviour varies dramatically according to the circumstances in which alcohol is consumed

– societies in which apparently ‘disinhibited’ drunken behaviour remains within well-defined, culturally sanctioned limits.

Seriously, the “alcohol as biochemical disinhibitor” theory went out the window in the sixties.

Incognito responds to this:

Yes, it does. You can read all about it in this excellent (and recent!) review in Nature Reviews Neuroscience entitled Cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms of alcohol-related aggression (it can be downloaded for free through ResearchGate).


Seriously, you’re stuck in a time warp! Please check out the review in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that I linked to in comment 10.3.

The closing sentences of that paper:

Although animal experiments provide a mostly coherent picture of the neurobiological correlates of alcohol-related aggression, more research in humans is warranted, especially considering the societal impact of alcohol-induced aggression. Such studies in humans need to take into account that, beyond the effects of acute and chronic alcohol intake suggested by animal experiments, cognitive variables such as implicit and explicit expectations regarding the effects of alcohol and previous experiences of violent encounters can modify alcohol-associated aggression.

A much more ‘nuanced’ view of the state of the field than the passive-aggressive stand by Dr Fox and many (all?) of her anthropologists colleagues.

So there is plenty to debate here without resorting to pissy dissing of a report without providing any substantiated counter arguments or facts.

In a recent post Robins criticised media:

Now you (the responsible media) might say that you’re offering a range of opinions. But when some opinions are clearly and provably nonsense that excuse is just an abdication of responsibility. It’s laziness, clickbait, and harmful.

I guess I’m asking for context and sanity checking in the media. Fact-based narrative instead of isolated and inconsistent snippets. Harder work, but much better for everyone.

How about some fact-based narrative instead of isolated and inconsistent snippets Anthony.

It’s harder for sure, but wouldn’t it be better?

Another footnote – my last post generated such a predictably facile misrepresentation by the right wing blogs (Slater / George) that I can’t wait to see what I’m going to be accused of this time!

How about your facile misrepresentation of Fox’s report?

And calling this a ‘right wing blog’ is a fairly facile misrepresentation too, isn’t it. Lazy.


Leave a comment


  1. Pantsdownbrown

     /  18th January 2016

    The lack of logic by the so called ‘academics’ is astounding – best they continue doing what they are best at, which is going to the govt trough for more money……..

    In reality only a very small % of people in our society who drink alcohol become violent therefore logic dictates that alcohol isn’t a major cause of violence in our society – its that simple.

    • “Both read the Bible day and night,
      But thou read’st black where I read white.”
      ― William Blake

      If we accept that A) socialisation and acculturation is the underlying cause of the violent behaviour, and B) that in a percentage of the population (significantly large enough to cost society untold misery, trauma and money) alcohol disinhibits the socialised preventers of violence, the important things to remember and do are –

      1) Absolutely not attempt to separate these aspects because, self-evidently, they are inextricably linked. Painting one a baddie and the other a goodie accomplishes nothing.

      2) Acknowledge that if we’re not going to change the socialisation we have no choice but to deal with the results of the alcohol disinhibition. In other words, if we don’t alter the behaviour we must deal with the substance related outcomes and/or the substance itself.

      The problems associated with alcohol’s evident link to violence continue (along with other crime, road deaths and injuries etc), with devastating consequences for individuals, families and society.

      Shift some focus and funding onto socialisation by all means, but until there’s progress on the behavioural front, keep up the pressure on the substance.

      To see this complex issue as Black AND White is only slightly more insidious than seeing it as Black OR White IMHO

      If you’re basically just scared of having your drinking rights curtailed, you should be. Look what’s happened with tobacco? Can alcohol laws somehow distinguish between you the responsible drinker and someone who regularly becomes violent when they drink?

      • Pantsdownbrown

         /  18th January 2016

        I don’t actually drink any alcohol, but to attack alcohol as a major cause/instigator of violence is pure nonsense. The amount of occasions that people become violent drinking alcohol compared to the amount of occasions people drink alcohol is minuscule (your B. above is therefore not correct) – therefore alcohol has virtually no relation to violent behaviour.

        Taking your theory further we should perhaps start placing bans on sporting events, listening to rock music & even protest marches as they too on occasion lead to a tiny portion of people in our society becoming violent??

        • Here’s the stats Pdb – – check it out.

          It’s not about the number of occasions people become violent compared to the total occasions people drink alcohol. The issue is about the number of occasions people who drink alcohol become violent, the frequency of alcohol consumption in direct relation to the frequency of violence. 1 in 2 serious assaults, for example.

          My B) above is therefore absolutely correct. Did you miss the words “in a percentage of the population significantly large enough to cost society untold misery, trauma and money”?

          This may be a tiny percentage of the population but numerically it is a large enough number of people to cause the societal harm. If this isn’t self-evident I don’t know what is.

          You see mine as an attack on alcohol …!? God give me strength … I’d rather tobacco restrictions were rescinded than alcohol be further controlled or prohibited, BUT it will need to go hand-in-hand with behaviour change, right, or its likely to only get worse?

          You see mine as the seed of curtailment for sporting, music and protest events!?
          God give me strength …

          • Pantsdownbrown

             /  18th January 2016

            Again you are wrong……….(seems to be your speciality on this forum)

            Using your ‘logic’ we should ban vehicles because 100% of vehicle incidents involve vehicles, or ban sexual activity as 100% of rape involves sexual activity.

            • Same, irrelevant, I never once say “ban” …

            • kittycatkin

               /  18th January 2016

              The ‘conclusions’ in the article are whiskery with age.

            • kittycatkin

               /  18th January 2016

              They also set up straw men. I can’t believe that this stale old stuff is still being treated as new and original.

  2. notrotsky

     /  18th January 2016

    Anthony Robin’s a sanctimonious know it all git since forever.

  3. David

     /  18th January 2016

    “Violence is part of our society yes – as are the inhibitions that hold violence in check.”

    Telling comment. People need to be controlled…or else!


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