Day 14 – Alcohol and (Flawed) Decision-Making

Some of the main reasons people have for wanting to cut back on heavy drinking or stop completely, are the consequences of the things they do and say and the decisions they make when they are drunk. These can range from the trivial to the serious to the downright dangerous:

  • Sending an embarrassing text to an ex.
  • Posting a rude or hurtful comment to someone on Facebook.
  • Leaving your boss a voicemail telling them just what you think of them.
  • Oversleeping and being late for work.
  • Spending money you don’t have.
  • Driving when you’re over the limit.
  • Staying up drinking until 4am and feeling absolutely shattered the next day.
  • Not getting done what you wanted to get done the following day.
  • Ruining something nice you had planned the following day because you’re so hungover.
  • Missing another arrangement.
  • Sleeping with a random stranger.
  • Sleeping with a random stranger without protection.
  • Using an unlicensed cab.
  • Binge eating on crap.
  • Starting smoking again.
  • Getting into arguments with strangers, bar staff, etc.

You might have had some similar reasons for wanting to stop drinking for a while.

This post outlines some of the ways alcohol can undermine our decision-making, which in turn can put us in sticky or even very risky situations. Although you aren’t drinking at the moment, reflecting on this now will help you to begin to think about what you want your relationship with alcohol to be post-MOB.

Couldn’t care less

People often claim that they were unaware of the inappropriate or foolish decisions they made when they were drunk, and it was always thought that the ‘alarm bell’ in our brain that is usually set off by mistakes (what neuroscientists call “error related negativity”) is weakened when we are drunk.

Research published in 2012 revealed a different story – seeming to show that we are still aware of our mistakes when we are drunk (e.g., our brains do ‘hear’ that alarm), but we just care less about them.

As the researcher Dr Bruce Bartholow, says: “It’s not as though people do drunken things because they’re not aware of their behavior, but rather they seem to be less bothered by the implications or consequences of their behavior than they normally would be.”

So basically, if you’re drunk you could still be aware that you are making a bad decision – ordering that second bottle of wine, getting into an unlicensed cab, texting your ex/boss – but you simply won’t care about it at the time. In a sense this relates to procrastination: doing whatever your present self wants today, with a total disregard for how this will affect your future self tomorrow.

Alcohol Shortsightedness

Alcohol myopia, or nearsightedness, refers to the fact that when we are drunk we are more likely to respond to our immediate environment (accepting the offer of another drink, taking the unlicensed cab that’s sitting right outside the club, acting on the thought of sending our ex/boss a text).

At the same time, we are less able to use our higher level cognitive processing to consider the future consequences of our actions (farsightedness), decide whether what we are doing is socially acceptable, or use self-control to overcome our impulses (decline the drink, wait longer for a licensed cab, resist the urge to text).

Alcohol shortsightedness affects our thinking (and therefore our decisions) in three main ways:

Self-inflation. Being drunk gives us tunnel-vision that illuminates our better qualities, and prevents us from using the more sophisticated mental processing that would usually help us to recognise our flaws.

On the plus side, we should focus on our positives, and not get hung up on our negative qualities, and many people say that they feel more confident and sociable when they are drunk.

However, this confidence can also lead us to do things that we would usually feel uncomfortable doing if we were sober, possibly for very good reasons (telling people exactly how we feel about them, for instance).

Relief. Alcohol’s nearsightedness causes us to pay more attention to what’s happening in the immediate present, and give less attention to things we have been worrying about or longer term problems.

So we might get some relief from our problems and concerns for a while, whilst we are drinking. Unfortunately, because we aren’t paying attention to our problems, we are more likely to make decisions that actually make them worse.

For example, being drunk helps you focus on the fun you are having now and forget about your financial worries, which in turn means you are more likely to overspend when you have had a few drinks, thus increasing your money troubles.

Excess. Alcohol myopia causes the immediate environment – what is happening NOW – to become far more important than anything else and simultaneously prevents us from being able to properly evaluate the long-term consequences of our actions. So we are more likely to be “slaves to the present moment” when we are drunk – responding to what’s happening, suggestions made by other people, or temptations, without stopping to consider whether it is wise.

This can lead people to cheat on their partners, spend money they don’t have, stay out far later than they intended…and indulge to excess in other ways that they will probably regret the next day.

Some people might overreact to their present environment by becoming more excessive and dramatic in reasonably entertaining ways – being more talkative, charismatic or hilarious. But the darker side of excessive behaviour can manifest in physically or verbally aggressive, or sexually inappropriate acts, that people would never do if they were sober. This is because alcohol suppresses our ability to regulate our urges and behave in more socially acceptable ways.

My idea is great, I’m 100% committed and will act upon it NOW!

Psychologically, commitment to a personal goal is considered to be dependent upon two things: the strength of our desire to achieve the goal, balanced with our evaluation of how feasible that goal is to achieve.

When we are sober we can really want (desire) a goal, but are also able to use our higher cognitive processing abilities to contemplate it’s feasibility by thinking ahead and imagining consequences and possible outcomes. The ideas and goals we have when we are sober are likely to be more sensible too.

So when we are sober we might actually feel less committed to some of our goals because we are able to weigh things up and recognise that although we really want it, a goal might be difficult to achieve – which can weaken our commitment to it.  

When we are drunk, not only are we more likely to have some less-than-sensible ideas or goals (e.g., ‘You know what, it’s important that my ex/boss knows how I feel, and I need to go round to his house and tell him now’; or ‘I really want to carry on, let’s all get a cab and go clubbing, I’ll pay’), we are also more likely to be strongly committed to pursuing them. This is because alcohol nearsightedness affects our ability to think about future consequences to determine the feasibility of a plan, which would otherwise offset our strong desire to pursue it.  

So not only will your ideas and goals probably be flawed to begin with when you are drunk, you will be more dogged in your pursuit of them.

The wearing off of this effect might explain why everyone seems up for moving on to a club or finding a late night bar at first, but gradually start peeling off from the group and losing interest the longer it takes to achieve. Basically they’re in a cooling-off period, slowly sobering up and starting to think about consequences again.

All-in-all, alcohol significantly undermines our ability to make decisions that are in the best interests of our future self, which can lead to all sorts of unwanted consequences – from the hangover from Friday night that spoils Saturday brunch, to a formal warning at work, or a drink-driving offence… If you want to have alcohol in your life post-MOB, you might want to think about setting some limits around how much you consume, so that you can rely on your higher-level decision-making faculties as much of the time as possible.

For more on this topic, watch another video from our October 2015 MOB webinars.

Your actions for today

  • Reflect upon some of the consequences you might have experienced in the past due to flawed decision-making when you were drinking. How does this relate to your longer-term plans post-Sober Sprint / MOB?  
  • Visit the private Club Soda Facebook group and tell us what thoughts you are having about your post-Sober Sprint / MOB drinking goals.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.