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May 22, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

Alcohol-Related Words May Increase Aggressive Behavior

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Exposing people to alcohol-related terms may increase aggressive behavior, according to a recent study.

It has been well documented by previous research that the consumption of alcohol is directly linked to an increase in aggression and other behavioral extremes, but researchers from California State University-Long Beach, the University of Kent and the University of Missouri found that simply seeing alcohol-related words have a similar effect on aggressive behavior.

Researchers performed two experiments for this study.

The first experiment tested whether priming study participants with alcohol-related terms would enhance their aggressive responding following an ambiguous provocation, but not following obvious provocation or no provocation at all. Participants were instructed to write a brief essay on a controversial topic, which they were told would be evaluated by another (actually non-existent) participant. After completing the essay, one group was primed with alcohol-related terms, such as whiskey, beer, and vodka, for less than one-tenth of a second. Another group of participants were exposed to non-alcohol related terms, such as coffee, milk and water. Following exposure to the sets of words, participants were provided with the evaluation of their essay.

Those in the unambiguous provocation group received an evaluation stating, "This is one of the worst essays I have ever read." The evaluation given to participants in the ambiguous provocation condition said, "I don't even know where to begin." A third, control group of participants did not receive an evaluation.

The participant's aggression was measured by asking them to recommend the length of time the evaluator of their essay should have to submerge his or her hand into a bucket of ice-cold water, something the participants themselves had just experienced.

Researchers found that when the essay feedback was hostile, participants responded with relatively high levels of aggression regardless of the terms they had been primed with. However, when the feedback was ambiguous, alcohol-primed participants were much more aggressive than nonalcohol-primed participants.

Researchers concluded that simply being exposed to alcohol-related words makes aggressive thoughts more accessible, thereby coloring interpretation of an ambiguous event and prompting an aggressive response.

The findings were recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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