Why do some people get goofy and affectionate when drunk, while others become downright nasty?
There are a lot of factors at play, says explains Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Some are speculative—a tiny bit of research links whisky to angry behavior (but it’s also possible that angry people just gravitate toward whisky, for whatever reason, says Gowin).
Others, like these six below, are more concrete: different factors that science shows determine your intoxicated identity.
Factor #1: Your (sober) personality
“Like any drug, alcohol affects your behavior, but it doesn’t introduce behaviors that aren’t already present,” Gowin says. Translation: If you become mean or affectionate while drunk, those responses are exaggerated reflections of your usual personality traits, he says. There’s some research that alcohol dulls the activity in your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which has been linked to self-control and self-reflection, Gowin explains. So the more wasted you get, the more impulsive and unaware you become. He compares the drunk brain to a car that’s been stripped of its brakes. “Normally, you would slow yourself down or realize that your actions or reactions aren’t appropriate. But when you’re drunk, that doesn’t happen.”
Factor #2: Your environment
Going back to the car with no brakes analogy, Gowin says the way you react to external factors while drunk is exaggerated because you’ve lost a lot of your impulse control and awareness. If your environment makes you feel nervous or threatened, that anxiety could make you act more aggressively or defensively than you normally would, he says. The people you’re with can also trigger strong emotion, which alcohol supercharges. A biting remark or sideways glance from a partner or a friend could send your anger through the roof, Gowin explains. (Not so fun fact: About half of all murders and two-thirds of domestic abuse events involve alcohol, he says.)
Factor #3: Your genes
If you’re the type who just can’t keep it together after a few drinks, your genes are at least partly to blame, research suggests. Traits like body sway, poor coordination, and slurred speech are all linked to a specific stretch of your DNA, indicates a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. U.K. researchers have also identified an “alcoholism gene” that makes some people more likely to pound booze than others. Ironically, people with this gene can typically drink a lot of alcohol without feeling or showing the effects of intoxication, the researchers say.
Factor #4: Your experience
At least part of the way you respond to alcohol is learned. For example, several studies have found people tend to act somewhat intoxicated even if they were secretly given non-alcoholic drinks, according to a report from the University of Rochester. Another study indicates you adopt the drunk behaviors of your society and social cohort. So if your crew gets loud and laugh-y, you’ll gravitate toward that kind of behavior, the research suggests.
Factor #5: Your mental state
Stress messes with the parts of your brain that manage decision-making and emotion, shows research from Yale University. As a result, drinking while stressed further torpedoes your ability to make smart decisions and manage your feelings, Gowin says. The same goes for fatigue, he adds. “Being sleep-deprived is kind of similar to being drunk in that both states affect those frontal parts of the brain that are important for self reflection and impulse control.” So think of drinking while you’re tired as a double-whammy. “Lack of sleep is already hurting your judgment and affecting your mood, and then you’re drinking, which heightens everything,” Gowin says.
Factor #6: Your sex
Women produce up to 10 times more of a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol, research has found. That means a woman’s body will usually process booze more quickly and she’ll feel alcohol’s effects more rapidly than a guy would, the research indicates.