Alcohol can affect behavior in a wide variety of different ways, which at first glance, may appear contradictory. It may make someone uncontrollably giggly or happy, or deeply depressed. It can increase both passivity and aggression.
This is seen especially dramatically in social situations. Many people find alcohol to be a useful social lubricant, that seems to make interacting with other people feel more comfortable, making it easier to laugh or engage with people, or find a conversation interesting or easy to contribute to.
However, alcohol can also serve as a "wrecking ball," leading to socially irresponsible behavior, actions hurtful to others, and sometimes even dangerous or violent behavior. Understanding the way alcohol can affect a person's behavior in different ways can help us navigate the ways it can be both useful and harmful to a social setting. This awareness can help us make responsible decisions regarding its use.
Alcohol as social lubricant
A 2012 study led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that moderate drinking in a social setting often leads to expressions of social bonding, increasing the amount of time people interact with each other, and causing more expressions of positive emotions and fewer expressions of negative ones. Many people have experienced that some drinking helps to relieve stress or increase good feelings, or give them courage to interact with people more freely.
Alcohol as wrecking ball
However, when one's alcohol consumption moves out of the category of responsible use, into binge drinking and addiction, the social impact can be a very different story. Alcohol addiction frequently leads to poor interpersonal relationships, especially as the craving overtakes your ability to be considerate for the needs of others.
Alcohol can increase impulsivity, leading to dangerous behavior, crimes, and more causal sexual activity. For some, heavy drinking can dramatically increase aggression. Even after the feelings of drunkenness have left, regular heavy drinking can lead to a depressed mood and negative outlook on life, which can harm social interactions.
Awareness and responsible use
Even at responsible levels, alcohol can often have a profound effect on the brain. Drinking makes the central nervous system and prefrontal cortex slow down, hampering the ability to "talk to yourself" or think through the full consequences of your actions.
In other words, alcohol can lead to uninhibited behavior, or cause you to do any number of things you wouldn't do otherwise. Sometimes turning off or slowing down your brain is positive, even necessary, particularly if you struggle with social anxiety or are otherwise carrying negative thoughts that get in the way of good social interactions, or it can cause you to be more willing to behave in a helpful manner.
However, there are other times when these same physiological effects can be deeply harmful, especially when it encourages violent or dangerous behavior. There is also a possibility that the culture and social context of your drinking matters. Without even being aware of it, the people with whom you drink are teaching and socializing you into modes of behavior.
People who drink to get drunk, and then engage in high-risk or aggressive behavior will lead to a far more troubling relationship with alcohol than people who consume in moderation and engage in positive interactions.
Even the positive social impact of alcohol can become dangerous if it becomes a crutch. You may feel that you "need" to drink before you can feel comfortable in a social situation, or expect alcohol to turn you into a radically different person. The truth is that you do not have to drink in order to reduce your fears or anxieties of social interactions.
For example, humor and laughter can have a far stronger and more lasting effect than alcohol on your ability to feel intimate and connected with another person. By building up your social skills and deepening your ability to listen and communicate, you are able to truly work past social inhibitions, rather than temporarily dulling them with a chemical.