Drunks can control their behaviour

January 23, 2001

ROWDY drinkers can't blame their violent behaviour on alcohol, say Canadian researchers who have found that drinkers can "sober up" if offered a small reward. The findings suggest that being intoxicated is no defence if someone commits a crime.

Psychologists know that alcohol loosens inhibitions and encourages people to act on impulses they would normally repress. Muriel Vogel-Sprott and colleagues from the University of Waterloo in Ontario tested this idea by asking volunteers to press a button when prompted by a computer screen. However, they were told not to respond if a red light also appeared. Those given alcohol were more likely to press the button regardless, just as a drinker is more likely to punch someone even if told to stop, says Vogel-Sprott. But the team found that drinkers offered a small reward, such as verbal approval, performed as well as sober volunteers. Vogel-Sprott says this means that people who've been drinking can control their behaviour if they want to. Fellow alcohol researcher Mark Fillmore from the University of Kentucky in Lexington agrees. "I think people can form intention under the drug," he says.

"If [this research were] applied to English law, intoxication would never be possible as a defence, not even to murder," says criminal lawyer Stephen Jones from the University of Bristol. But he points out that the study used less alcohol than is involved in most alcohol-related crimes. Vogel-Sprott's findings will appear in a future issue of Alcoholism: clinical and experimental research.
Author: Joanna Marchant

New Scientist issue: 27th January 2001


New Scientist

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