It’s a common myth that alcohol is something of a modern truth serum. Anyone who’s spent time around drunks can tell you they tend to be loose lipped at best. But, are people more likely to actually tell the truth when drunk? The short answer, no. The long answer? It’s actually complex, highly dependent on the individual and depending on the situation.
Alcohol impacts the GABA receptors in the brain and the central nervous system, most noticeably affecting motor controls, inhibition and the risk/reward system. The result is that people will talk about anything and everything, respond quickly and without thought and otherwise immediately say whatever’s on their minds. This means that alcohol can make people share personal information and truths they might not otherwise share. But it can also make people fabricate stories, respond with emotions they don’t really feel, and otherwise simply react based on whatever they’re feeling in that moment. A drunk’s reactions aren’t really to be trusted. And, there’s a lot of science backing that up.
Evaluative Cognitive Control
What do you think of when you think of a drunk person? In most cases, the answer is likely to be someone with reduced inhibitions, reduced motor controls and reduced control over their emotions and actions. People are more likely to engage in crimes, casual sex and embarrassing social faux pas’ when drunk and that relates to the impairment of evaluative cognitive control.
What’s evaluative cognitive control? It’s the process of your brain where you evaluate actions and behavior based on past experiences and expectations to determine if you should engage in them or not. Alcohol slows or even stops neurotransmitter signals in the brain, slowing or even removing your ability to exercise evaluative cognitive control.
So, a sober person would experience something, compare it to past actions, and use Negative Effect, or memories linked to past negative experiences such as stress, embarrassment, or pain and choose not to do it. A drunk person lacks the ability to recall these memories or their associations and will simply perform the behavior, similarly to a child doing them for the first time. If they’re asked to say something embarrassing, have the opportunity to relate something to someone, or have decided not to say something to someone for whatever reason, the filter that caused them to make this decision may be turned off.
One of the easiest examples is that people often become very talkative when drunk. Most people learn, as children, that practicing moderation with sharing and with speech is socially beneficial. Others are shy and feel inhabitations related to fear or social pressure. Alcohol can reduce those inhibitions, resulting in people who are consistently more talkative and outgoing than their sober selves. However, alcohol often affects activities people are engaged with. People who drink on their own are less likely to exhibit reduced social inhibition in terms of talking, reckless behavior, etc.
However, alcohol affects evaluative cognitive control in different ways. One person may completely lack it, others may show little to no impairment.
As stated above, alcohol inhibits neurotransmitter signals in the brain. Neurotransmitters including GABA, serotonin, dopamine, neuroprotein and others are directly responsible for emotions and emotional responses. A very drunk person may simply be incapable of experiencing normal emotions until they sober up. They may experience emotions and be unable to tell them apart, they may experience emotions and misinterpret them, and they may simply not experience emotions except either happiness or rage.
This results in instances where drunks experience happiness and become bubbly, grief, or lust and they overreact when compared to their sober selves. So, someone may start a violent assault after someone else spills beer on them. They may go on a drunken rant and say a lot of things that aren’t true and that they didn’t think of until the moment, and they may relate truths in a fit of grief or guilt. They quite simply have very little control over emotions.
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Inhibition Reduces Based on Alcohol Intake
Reduced inhibition directly tracks to total alcohol consumption, with users who drink more consistently showing less inhibition, further mental debilitation and increased motor control debilitation. Light drinkers typically show moderate impairment to inhibition, but little else. Moderate to heavy drinkers experience working memory problems, preventing them from implementing working memory to rationalize moral, safety, and legal decisions that would be easy when sober. So, heavy drinking impairs inhibition and working memory, meaning that rationalizing any decision becomes difficult.
In social situations, this same process effects how people are able to determine if something is socially acceptable to say, acceptable to that person, or acceptable to them. So, they might tell a truth they were trying to hide. They might tell a convenient lie because they lose social context. They might show bigotry or racism. And they might still make good decisions. Again, this type of impairment can heavily vary between individuals, with some showing little to no ability and others showing only moderate impairment despite having consumed similar quantities of alcohol.
So, Do Drunk People Tell the Truth?
Alcohol impacts the brain in a lot of ways. None of them necessarily increase the veracity of what someone says. However, a person is more likely to simply say whatever comes to mind when drunk, which means there is a significant likelihood of hearing truths you wouldn’t otherwise hear. However, many people are also prone to simply lie for social standing when drunk as well, meaning there’s also a significant chance of hearing lies.
How can you tell? If you know the person and their circumstances, you often have a good idea of what’s true and what isn’t. People are more likely to openly discuss things that are important to them, private, or even illegal. Social pressure typically results in attention seeking or wishing to divulge and confide in others, and drunks are significantly more likely to engage in these behaviors because of reduced risk management.
Drunks are also more likely to respond with emotions, often to whatever they’re feeling at the time. These emotions are typically less based on what’s happening around them and more on how the chemicals in their brain are being processed. This means one drunk person may react with giggles and glee and another with rage over anything and defensiveness.
What’s the important part. Pay attention to context, use your knowledge of the person, and consider how they react when sober. Drunk people are often more honest because they lose rationalization, and you can use this to have very heartfelt and genuine conversations.
If someone is drinking enough that they are frequently cognitively impaired, they likely have an alcohol use disorder. Individuals who drink more than 15 alcoholic drinks per week are considered alcohol abusers. Individuals who can’t control their alcohol consumption, frequently binge drink, experience cravings, hide alcohol usage, or use even at the expense of their safety, career, or financial and legal status are usually addicted. And alcohol addiction is harmful to the extent that it’s one of the leading causes of preventable death in the United States.
While convincing your loved one to go to an alcohol rehab can be difficult, there is help available and it does work. Substance use disorders like alcoholism are behavioral disorders affecting the individual’s brain, emotions, behavior patterns, and ability to react. Treatment involves long-term behavioral therapy, counseling, and support. Modern treatment focuses on discovering and treating the underlying causes of addiction, creating new and healthy behavior patterns, and helping individuals live a happy and healthy life without alcohol.
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