Imbibing expectations: alcohol’s effect on behavior


Jordan Mondell | Contributing Editor

“Wine makes you a little bit tired. Tequila makes you a little more crazy.”

Senior Brock Baranowski is confident in these assertions — a firm believer in the concept that certain drinks encourage certain feelings or actions.

Gregg Higgins, a second-year graduate student in the School of Public Health, recounted how his friend “would never drink tequila” anymore because it made her “want to take off her shirt and fight.”

For the Odyssey, Amy Tulipano’s seventh reason for choosing wine over boys is simple: “it helps you sleep.” In Kenny Chesney’s “You and Tequila,” the country crooner croaks “You and tequila make me crazy.” And if you’re really desperate for a mood drink, the Distractify staff compiled a list of reasons to pick certain beverages — if you want to be “text-people-you-shouldn’t-be-texting drunk,” choose vodka, they say.

In short, young people are convinced that the “tequila theory,” among others, are solid truths — but can a shot of Patrón really make you any crazier than a glass of wine or a can of beer? Despite anecdotes and legends about how different types of alcohol impact the body, few students or regular drinkers can cite any concrete evidence that their favorite drink really makes them smoother, bolder or more likely to dance on the bar.

Even among those who see plenty of drunk people per week — employees at college bars — there are mixed reviews.

Craig Campbell, cook and bartender at Peter’s Pub, said the effects of a drink depend primarily on the alcohol content and “how much you drink and how fast.” In Campbell’s experience, it’s more about which category of alcohol a person is drinking, whether that’s spirits, wine or beer. Spirits have the highest percentage of alcohol, followed by wine and then beer.

“I don’t necessarily think that one different type of drink affects you much differently than the other,” Campbell said.

Brennan Ehrman, bar manager and bartender at Logan’s Pub in North Oakland, said he does see a correlation between the type of drink a person consumes and how they feel and behave once they’re drunk.

“You can have three people who are the same age, same weight, same everything — one person drinks vodka, one person drinks whiskey, one person drinks tequila – they’ll act pretty different,” Ehrman said.

Jordan Mondell | Contributing Editor

For example, “whiskey will either make you a lover or a fighter,” according to Ehrman. “But I’m not a fighter,” he added with a laugh.

Turns out, alcohol isn’t that simple. Christopher Martin, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Pitt, said congeners — which add flavor — are often found in darker liquors such as whiskey, brandy and especially red wine. Congeners vary in concentration from one drink to the next and are a byproduct of fermentation, which breaks yeast down into alcohol. Other drinks, such as vodka and gin, have little to no congeners present.

Previous research has suggested that beverages with higher levels of congeners lead to more intense hangovers, however experts disagree on the effects of congeners while a person is still intoxicated.

“I don’t think there’s any good evidence that they change how drunk you are and how you feel,” Martin said.

Instead, Martin, like Campbell, said reactions to alcohol depend on how much and how fast you drink.

“Alcohol is alcohol is alcohol,” he said, explaining how differences don’t exist between types of alcohol, and common beliefs about different kinds — such as wine causing sleepiness — aren’t necessarily true.

Ralph Tarter, director of the Center for Education and Drug Abuse Research and professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Pitt’s School of Pharmacy, said everyone reacts differently to the congeners in various alcoholic beverages.

Depending on how reactive a person is to a congener, they “may experience a different response to one alcohol beverage than to another alcohol beverage.”

Tarter said a wealth of factors contribute to how an individual experiences an alcoholic beverage, especially since most people don’t drink alcohol in “pure form” but instead with a mixture of sugars and flavoring.

What you mix with a drink can affect how that beverage makes you feel — or at least that’s what bartenders Caleb Cornell and Christen Hunt of Kelly’s Bar and Lounge in East Liberty say.

“Anyone that drinks vodka and Redbull, they’re just asking for trouble and a nightmare of hangover,” Cornell said.

Cornell said people are often oblivious to how sugars in alcohol can affect their reaction to a drink.

“One common trait, especially among college students — even when I was in college — is that Jagermeister will just annihilate you. You don’t understand how much sugar is in that,” Cornell said. “The amount of sugar in a drink is often the cause of what will lead you to be hungover.”

Tarter said a person’s mental state, along with social and cultural factors, can influence their perception of a drink, perhaps more than the type of alcohol consumed.

The social context in which a person drinks can alter their perceptions of how they react to a beverage — a phenomenon Tarter calls the “expectancy effect.” The expectancy effect is so strong it can even lead people to act like they’re drunk — stumbling around, slurring words and acting on impulses — if they believe they’ve consumed alcohol when they actually haven’t.

“It used to be a fraternity prank,” Tarter said. “You would give kids a drink with no alcohol, thinking it had alcohol, and they would behave as if they were intoxicated. [They were] truly acting out the role because the expectancy effects were very, very profound.”

A person’s biology, such as their genetics and family history, plays into their intoxicated behavior as well. For instance, individuals genetically at risk for developing an alcohol-use disorder may, according to Tarter, have an inherently higher tolerance to alcohol’s effects. This may be true even if they don’t regularly drink or intentionally try to raise their tolerance.

With such a variety of factors influencing how people react to the contents of their red Solo cup, it seems nearly impossible to predict behavior based on alcohol of choice. According to Tarter, it’s largely a person’s background and upbringing — what they’ve both been taught and personally experienced — that contributes to their beliefs about alcohol.

“We have all have acquired complex belief systems, and depending on the culture in which you’ve been raised, you’re going to harbor those belief systems,” Tarter said.

This includes religious beliefs — such as using alcohol exclusively at somber religious occasions — as well as beliefs and expectancies ingrained through mass media such as advertisements, TV shows and movies.

Despite scientific evidence — or lack thereof — when it comes to alcohol, sometimes it’s easier to stick with what you think you know.

“My older brother taught me how to drink,” Higgins said. “In that is the transfer of knowledge which involves, like, ‘Oh yeah, I got so messed up on a certain type of alcohol, I’ll never drink it again.’”

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