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Posted 11.01.05

Alcohol-Related Images May Lead to Aggression, MU Study Finds

Drinking Isn't Necessary to Spark Violent Hostility

COLUMBIA, MO -- People may find themselves at risk for aggressive behavior just by being in a venue that serves alcohol. A recent study by a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher confirms the link between alcohol and aggression and suggests the mere presence of alcohol-related images encourages aggression, even if people are not consuming alcohol.

Bruce Bartholow, assistant professor of psychology at Mizzou, examined responses from 246 undergraduate students. In the first experiment, 121 subjects were briefly shown alcohol-related images, such as a beer bottle, images of weapons and neutral images, such as plants. After one image was presented, a target word, which was either aggression-related, neutral or a non-word letter string, was flashed on the screen. By pressing a key as quickly as possible the participants indicated whether or not the letter string was a legitimate English word. Participants were faster to identify aggression-related words that were shown after alcohol images and weapon images, relative to neutral images, Bartholow said.

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Psychological Science

In the second experiment, 125 participants completed surveys to gauge their drinking behavior and their beliefs concerning the expected effects of drinking alcohol, such as aggression or feeling ill. Participants were told that the study was intended to examine how advertisements were rated in various formats. They were assigned to one of two conditions, with subjects in one condition examining six alcohol-related advertisements and those in the other condition examining six neutral advertisements.

After rating the ads, participants read a short paragraph about a character engaging in a series of ambiguously hostile behaviors, such as refusing to pay rent until his apartment was repainted. They evaluated this character on six positive traits, such as dependability, and six negative traits, such as hostility.

The results showed that participants who had been exposed to the alcohol ads rated the story character as more hostile than participants who had seen the neutral ads. This effect was largest among participants whose earlier survey responses indicated that they believed alcohol consumption leads to aggression. Participants who generally did not believe that alcohol leads to aggression rated the character relatively low in hostility regardless of whether they were initially shown alcohol-related advertisements or neutral ones.

"These findings suggest that the mere sight of alcohol brings aggression-related thoughts to mind, which can have a specific influence on perceptions of hostility," Bartholow said. "Researchers and the general public have long known of a link between drinking alcohol and increased aggression. These studies indicate that this link does not depend on alcohol being consumed or even on the belief that alcohol has been consumed."

Bartholow's study will appear in the January issue of Psychological Science.



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