Psychologists say your drunk personality has a lot in common with your sober self

Party animal? Always.
Party animal? Always.
Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
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The sense of sudden liberation that could push you to do something crazy; the worry that you might be acting outlandishly; a flooding of goodwill through the veins that makes you want to hug strangers.

People often think that their personalities change when they’re drunk, and they might even feel very different. But according to new research from the University of Missouri published in May in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, most of that doesn’t show—even when people are closely watched in test conditions by a small battery of trained observers.

Plenty of previous research has found marked changes to behavior when people are drunk, with alterations like an increase in extraversion, and more risk-taking, particularly marked. All of that chimes with anecdotal experience. But many of those studies were based on after-the-fact reporting by subjects or people who knew them. This time, Missouri researchers set out to objectively measure drunk behavior by giving groups of friends vodka-laced Sprite in lab conditions, setting them tasks, and having strangers observe the performance.

People in the drunk groups were observed to be more extroverted than those in the sober groups, with observers using a system that measures five factors of personality. They also found—though less conclusively—that drunk people seemed less neurotic. But in the three other areas studied—conscientiousness, openness, and agreeableness—the observers didn’t notice any difference.

There are many caveats here: The environment was atypical—not a friend’s house, for example, or a karaoke bar, though people were studied in friendship groups, and the sessions were run in the evening or on weekends. The dosage was standardized, with no aim to get the participants massively inebriated. The groups given alcohol were compared to other groups who remained sober, rather than participants being compared when sober and then when drunk.

And the observers, while trained, didn’t know the participants. Personality is such a complex thing that subtle changes might only be obvious—and, annoying—to those who know us best. (Indeed, for anyone who thinks this might be a get-out clause for bad behavior, it probably isn’t: A marked change in personality when drinking is one of the markers of having a problematic, and possibly dependent, relationship with alcohol, the research said.)

Notably, the researchers said, participants themselves did report that their levels of conscientiousness, openness and agreeableness changed after drinking. The simplest explanation, suggest the researchers, is that drinkers may experience the greatest change internally. Good news perhaps: On the way home from Friday office cocktails, you may not be quite the scattered and giggling public wreck you feel like.