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Uses of "disinhibition" in the explanation of intoxicated behavior.

Conceptual clarification must be part of any research that attempts to explain regularities found in the empirical world. The need for greater conceptual clarity may not be immediately evident. In communicating about scientific facts we typically use verbal communication effortlessly. On the whole, our concepts seem to take care of themselves. However, the words that we use can hide important distinctions.

A possible misconception concerning conceptual analysis should be addressed at the onset. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish statements made regarding the meaning of concepts from theoretical speculations and plain empirical statements. If the conceptual discussion that follows is interpreted in a purely empirical mode, it can easily be taken to suggest that there is no such thing as a disinhibition process induced by alcohol. This conclusion should not be drawn. In the words of Marie McGinn, a conceptual analysis "does not represent an increase in our knowledge of the kind we associate with science; it merely `reminds us' of something which, insofar as we are masters of the practice of using language, we already know" (McGinn, 1997, p. 27). My intention is only to clarify the different uses of the term "disinhibition," i.e., what we mean or imply by saying that drinking alcohol leads to disinhibition. An individual concept may have several meanings, or be used in various ways, with the meanings or uses imperceptibly shading into one another. This can lead to serious misunderstandings.(1)

Conceptual premises guide our thinking in all phases of research. Data that speak for themselves do not exist, and theory development is not possible without solid conceptual underpinnings. Conceptual analysis is therefore not an esoteric exercise that we can easily do without. Before we can assess the validity of causal statements invoking a disinhibition phenomenon of one kind or another, we need a deeper understanding of how the term is used. With a better conceptual understanding we are also in a better position to judge what kind of useful theoretical function the disinhibition concept can serve.

Individual theoretical concepts are part of larger conceptual structures. A central feature of the term "disinhibition" is that it is closely linked to "inhibition." In order for there to be a state or process of disinhibition, there must be a state of inhibition preceding it. However, this basic requirement for the use of the disinhibition concept is often not adhered to when the term is used. This contributes to the vagueness and variability in the meaning of the term.

I will here distinguish between three different uses of "disinhibition." The first to be discussed is the explanatory use, the one that seems to be most often associated with the term in the alcohol literature. In addition, the term has a descriptive use and a formal use. The three uses am intrinsically linked and no doubt influence one another. For this reason it is difficult to describe them separately, without bringing in the other aspects somewhat prematurely. The formal use can be regarded as the most basic one. However, the discussion has to be carried out on a fairly abstract level and will probably gain in clarity if we start with the explanatory use, which is probably the most familiar of the three for readers of the alcohol literature.

1. Using "disinhibition" to explain Intoxicated behavior

When "disinhibition" is used as the focal term in explaining intoxicated behavior, there is often a tacit assumption that what causes that behavior is a biochemical mechanism in the brain. This mechanism is presumably triggered by alcohol in the blood. To the extent that this causal occurrence has been specified, it is mostly referred to as one in which more "primitive" brain centers are released from the "inhibitory control" of the cerebral cortex by the pharmacological effects of alcohol.(2) This idea can be traced back at least as far as the early 1940s, when Newman (1941) cautiously suggested it as a possible causal mechanism. Since then this hypothesis has been time and time again formulated as an established fact.

It should be noted that explanations using this protomodel do not seem to require that any input from the environment be received for disinhibition to occur. (Experimental evidence suggests that aggression occurs after drinking only if certain types of stressful situations are present.) If such requirements are added to disinhibition models, important questions must be asked regarding the type of stimuli or events that trigger a disinhibition process and what effect alcohol may have in determining how such stimuli or events are perceived and interpreted. One reason why this laxness of reference to a more specific theory is not obvious is that there are legitimate uses of the concept (descriptive and formal) that do not require that a theoretical background be available.

Biochemical disinhibition

There is little empirical support for the idea that alcohol triggers a specific biochemical disinhibition process that in turn directly determines behavior (Woods & Mansfield, 1983). More generally, the assumption that there is a specific biochemical disinhibition process of any kind sufficiently common to explain a substantial proportion of alcohol-related aggression and other types of affective or excessive behavior has not found empirical support.(3) Still, the use of the term "disinhibition" persists. Why? In part, no doubt, because the image of a single biochemical process underlying alcohol-related behavior is appealing in its simplicity. Because of its indeterminacy, the term can also be used for referring to several types of determinant processes at various levels of abstraction and from a number of different fields of inquiry, but there has been a definite preference for biochemical and psychodynamic processes. The indeterminacy of meaning is closely linked to the formal and the descriptive aspects of the term, which are discussed below. These other uses of the term may not be as immediately evident as the explanatory use.

Psychodynamic disinhibition

Explanations of alcohol-related behavior that refer to psychodynamic disinhibition processes are not as unitary as the use of a single label may indicate. In some explanations, the disinhibited responses are assumed to consist of phylogenetically innate aggressive tendencies, while other authors refer to a regression to an ontologically early stage of the individual's (not necessarily abnormal) childhood adjustment or to current abnormal patterns of individual adjustment.(4) However, common to most current, at least minimally specified explanatory uses of the term in alcohol research is that they posit the inhibition--disinhibition process as an internal physiological and/or psychodynamic occurrence. This can be contrasted with the formal behavioristic usage discussed below, in which disinhibition by definition is an external cue-driven process, with any potential internal mediation hidden in the "black box."

Conditional inhibition

The state of inhibition and the process of disinhibition are not always left totally unspecified. In the mom specific uses of "alcohol-related disinhibition," the initial assumption is often this: Behavior that is socially inhibited, i.e., circumscribed by social conventions or norms or allowed only in particular social settings, will occur more often, or in atypical or less appropriate contexts, when a person has consumed alcohol than when totally sober. It is, in other words, assumed that there is a selection process at work, in that predominantly behavior that can be described as socially inhibited is affected by alcohol and becomes manifest. In such contexts it does not suffice to speak rather vaguely of "disinhibited behavior" (in the descriptive sense discussed in the next section). One will, in addition, have to show that prior to the person's drinking alcohol, the behavior in question was indeed inhibited. This is a key feature of one of the cognitive explanations suggested in the alcohol literature, the "alcohol myopia" explanation of intoxicated aggression (Josephs & Steele, 1990).

From the basic conceptual premise that alcohol disinhibits socially inhibited behavior, it has been concluded that individuals who exhibit different levels of social inhibition in a sober state will be variably affected by alcohol. In particular, such models have been tested regarding effects of alcohol on sexual arousal (e.g., Briddell et al., 1978; Lang et al., 1980; Wilson & Niaura, 1984), using degree of sexual guilt as the inhibition variable. Several experimental studies do in fact show that subjects who exhibit higher levels of guilt regarding their sexual feelings will be more affected by alcohol in a disinhibiting manner. However, this specification of the relationship does not greatly enhance the value of the disinhibition concept in explaining alcohol-related sexual or aggressive behavior. The finding amounts to just another descriptive generalization regarding the covariation between drinking and disinhibited behavior.(5) The difference is that the generalization is now phrased in an explicitly conditional form and restricted to a subgroup of humans (and probably a subset of situations). In explanatory terms we are still at the starting point: any type of process, even a causal process based on alcohol's effects on cognition or based on drinkers' expectancies regarding the types of behavior that drinking brings about, could cause this conditional disinhibition of behavior. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that the connections between alcohol use and aggression have to be conditional, because there are innumerable cases of alcohol use and drunkenness where no signs of excessive or overly affective behavior are shown (MacAndrew & Edgerton, 1969; Pernanen, 1991).

2. Descriptive uses of "disinhibition"

The term "disinhibition" has over the years acquired a widely used descriptive meaning. We can in fact characterize a type of behavior as being disinhibited without invoking any type of process that caused the behavior (and even without implying that the behavior was in any way inhibited prior to drinking). In this meaning of the term, disinhibited behavior is simply what it would have been if a disinhibition process had taken place. In contrast to behavior that is normal, appropriate, measured, deliberate, etc., other behavior can be characterized as being "disinhibited" without necessarily implying that the former type of behavior is in fact "inhibited."

Among numerous instances in the literature, we can cite the descriptive use by Taylor et al. (1977): "The intoxicated subjects in the study responded in a relatively disinhibited manner . . ." (p. 218). It is relatively easy to confuse the descriptive use of the term with its explanatory use. In the latter meaning the basic statement "alcohol causes disinhibition" is read as "alcohol causes a disinhibition process," with the disinhibition process presumably being one with which the reader is familiar and the statement therefore having an explanatory impact. One can, however, agree with the empirical generalization that alcohol causes disinhibited or uninhibited behavior without subscribing to the idea that there is a specific alcohol-related causal disinhibition process involved, be it of a biochemical or psychological nature or any other type. There is a great deal of ambiguousness in the use of "disinhibition," and it is sometimes hard to tell whether the descriptive or the explanatory meaning is intended.

There is ample evidence, however, that the unconditional descriptive generalization "alcohol use leads to disinhibited behavior" is not valid. MacAndrew and Edgerton (1969) have drawn our attention to the greatly varying nature of drunken comportment in different societies, and how behavior patterns under alcohol intoxication have changed over time in the same population. It is, in fact, obvious from the most cursory observation of drinking individuals, including people who quietly drink themselves into a stupor, that uninhibited behavior is not a necessary outcome of drinking.(6) On the other hand, there can be little doubt that intoxicated behavior more often than sober behavior is out-of-the-ordinary, excessive, uninhibited or "disinhibited." Nevertheless, this does not mean that a specific disinhibition process, however it is conceived, can explain that behavior.

If we label a theory or model on the basis of what it tries to explain--i.e., on the basis of the outcome of the causal process--any model that purports to explain behavior that can be descriptively labeled as "disinhibited," including an alcohol-expectancy model or a model making use of the cognitive impairment caused by alcohol, can in effect be called a "disinhibition hypothesis" or "disinhibition model" (Pernanen, 1981). We often label theories in this way. However, in the case of, for example, "theories of alcoholism" there is no ambiguity, because we know that "alcoholism" refers to the end result and not to the causal process.

In summary, one interpretation of the statement "alcohol causes disinhibition" is "alcohol causes disinhibited behavior" (the descriptive use) as opposed to "alcohol causes a disinhibition process" (the explanatory use). In the descriptive sense, disinhibited behavior is just another label for a large variety of behaviors, including excessive, deviant, inappropriate and overly affective behavior. This descriptive meaning is used to make empirical generalizations about behavior under alcohol intoxication without (necessarily) implying that this is mediated by a specific disinhibition process. When "disinhibition" is used descriptively, no reference need be made to an underlying causal process. Problems arise when we do not clearly separate the explanatory use from the descriptive use.

3. The formal character of "Inhibition--disinhibition"

We have seen that the causal processes in alcohol-related aggression are frequently not specified when the term "disinhibition" is used. It was suggested above that this is often due the term's being used merely to refer to or describe a certain type of behavior. Another central use of the term is formal or metatheoretical in nature. This use also does not require a specification of a causal process. The predominant use of the term in behavioristic theory is explicitly formal, as we shall see shortly. In fact, the formal use of "disinhibition" is relatively common in all life sciences. We can speak of the formal use as a third distinct meaning area of the term, in addition to the explanatory and the descriptive uses. It is probably the basic linguistic function of the term.

The definition of formal disinhibition

In many contexts "disinhibition" is used as a synonym or near-synonym of sonic concepts that am widely used in common language--concepts like "release," "triggering" or "elicitation." These concepts are also formal, in the sense that they can be used to describe any number of concrete processes. They are not dependent on what is being triggered, released, etc., and they do not describe how this happens. A chemical reaction can be triggered by adding a chemical substance to a compound, a riot can be triggered by an increase in bread prices, an allergy can be triggered by exposure to a specific substance, and a psychosis can be triggered by the loss of a family member. The formal use has been explicitly acknowledged as the standard meaning of the concept of "psychological inhibition" for a long time. In the 1958 edition of the American College Dictionary one definition of "inhibition" is: ". . . Psychol. the blocking of any psychological process by another psychological process." Essentially the same definition is found in Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary from 1989: ". . . Psychol. the blocking or holding back of one psychological process by another." In the behavioristic stimulus-response (S-R) conceptual framework, inhibition occurs when impulses or cues, by whatever cause or for whatever reason, lead to the noncommission of the criterion act.(7) Disinhibition, on the other hand, occurs when impulses or cues lead to the commission of this act. "Disinhibition" is not included in the 1958 dictionary, but in the 1989 work it is defined as follows: ". . . Psychol. a temporary loss of inhibition caused by an outside, often unrelated, stimulus."

In the formal use of the disinhibition concept, inhibiting and disinhibiting cues or processes need have no intrinsic connection with the impulse to act in a certain way. (This is evident from the phrase "often unrelated" in the definition cited above.) An intrinsic connection exists when there are, for example, in the culture of the actor, restraining social norms specifically aimed against hitting a child, and remembering or otherwise becoming aware of this fact stops the actor from physically punishing the child. Psychoanalytic explanations of inhibition and disinhibition of behavior assume an intrinsically meaningful connection between the inhibition of an act and its disinhibition. Often the disinhibiting cue or occurrence is assumed to have a deeply symbolic relationship to the inhibited act. This restriction does not apply to the way the term is used within the stimulus-response conceptual framework, nor generally when it is used as a synonym for release, elicitation, etc.

Disinhibition within the stimulus--response paradigm

Examples of the formal inhibition-disinhibition concept abound in the psychological literature on aggression. For example, Tedeschi et al. (1974), in speaking of determinants of aggressive behavior, explicitly acknowledge the formal behavioristic meaning: ". . . responses . . . may be inhibited because a competing response is elicited . . ." (p. 547). Rogers (1983) speaks of "those variables whose presence inhibits aggression but whose absence disinhibits aggression" (p. 28). The formal character of inhibition--disinhibition has naturally also been used in innumerable substantive contexts--for example, by J.P. Scott (1975) in discussing an early experiment on fighting among rats. In this experiment, rats had been trained to fight when put together in a cage. The experimenters hypothesized that when food was put in the cage, the rats would start fighting over it. Contrary to expectations, fighting actually decreased, and Scott states: "We can explain this by assuming that eating had previously been associated with non-fighting, producing an inhibitory effect" (p. 16; my emphasis). Any act that has been associated (predominantly through learning) with a certain cue will in this formal sense inhibit other acts.

The formal use is also evident from the fact that so many different types of phenomena can act as "disinhibitors" of one and the same type of behavior. Bandura (1986) discusses several factors that can have "disinhibitory effects" on aggression, including freedom from reprisal, mass media influences, anonymity, distributed responsibility, violent erotica, social justification, modeling, and alcohol. It is not likely that aggression would in all cases come about through the same kind of causal disinhibition process.

It follows from what has been said above that it is in the nature of the formal conceptual pair inhibition--disinhibition that any cue that calls forth a response is in fact both an inhibitor (for an indefinite set of acts) and a disinhibitor (for a much more restricted set of acts). Any cue is an inhibitor to responses whose occurrence it blocks, because the organism selects another specific response on the basis of this cue, and a disinhibitor because the cue activates this specific response at the expense of other potential responses.

Alcohol as a formal disinhibitor

Trying to interpret the role of alcohol as a disinhibitor using the formal meaning of inhibition--disinhibition leads us into a conceptual never-never land. The acts that result from such a process do not necessarily fit the descriptive use of "disinhibition" (as excessive or inappropriate behavior), nor does this use of the term have any meaningful links to assumed processes in brain physiology or psychodynamics. In the behaviorist formal meaning, "alcohol leads to disinhibition" could, on the other hand, conceivably be interpreted to mean that drinking leads to more frequent changes in behavior, and perhaps also interpreted to imply that behavior determination is more situational (i.e., more sensitive to the cuing properties of stimuli present in the immediate situation). The disinhibition of various behavior impulses (and consequently the inhibition of other, competing ones) would then be more frequent after consumption of alcohol. But this is probably never meant when it is stated that alcohol leads to disinhibition.

A consequence of accepting that alcohol is in the formal sense a disinhibitor of aggression is that one is forced to accept that alcohol is also an inhibitor of aggression! This comes about because an aggressive act that is disinhibited by alcohol will inhibit other acts. Alcohol being a general disinhibitor (within the formal meaning of the term) means that after the aggressive response at least one of the other responses will immediately be disinhibited by alcohol and will now inhibit aggression. Which of the two causal roles (inhibitor or disinhibitor) alcohol happens to play at a particular point in time depends on the point of view of the observer and on the momentary dynamics of cue constellations and changes in these. It would seem that using the formal meaning to explicate what is meant by "alcohol causes disinhibition," "alcohol is a disinhibitor of aggression," etc. leads us to a dead end.

Expectancies and disinhibition

Discussions of the disinhibiting effects of alcohol are typically not carried out within the S-R paradigm, using the formal aspect of the concept. This is somewhat surprising, for a great deal of experimental work on alcohol's association with aggression and sexual responsiveness has been carried out within a general S-R framework. If the S-R paradigm and the formal meaning of inhibition-disinhibition were used consistently, the findings showing that the mere belief that one has consumed alcohol increases aggressive responding (e.g., Lang et al., 1975) and sexual arousal (e.g., Lang et al., 1980; Wilson & Niaura, 1984) could be interpreted as showing that alcohol disinhibits aggression and sexual arousal. The sight, smell, taste, tactile sensations, verbal instructions, etc. linked to alcohol and drinking are used to elicit responses in expectancy experiments. In the stimulus-response sense, these cues are disinhibitors of aggression just as the sight of weapons (e.g., Berkowitz & LePage, 1967) or observing another individual's aggressive reactions (e.g., Baron & Kepner, 1970; Harris, 1973) have a disinhibitory cue value for aggression.

However, findings on alcohol-linked expectancy effects have not been seen as confirming a disinhibition model of alcohol use. On the contrary, they are typically interpreted as refuting explanations that invoke disinhibiting effects of alcohol. The crucial difference is that "disinhibition" within alcohol research typically is seen as referring to an internal physiological or psychodynamic process, and not to a process where alcohol is a disinhibitor for aggression in the S-R sense of the term.(8) When the use of the formal or stimulus-response meaning of disinhibition is misinterpreted as providing evidence for or against the existence of substantive disinhibition processes (such as a specific physiological process in the brain), we naturally have a major conceptual problem.

Disinhibition in multiple causal processes

The fact that inhibition--disinhibition in its formal aspect can be applied to any causal system where some factors hinder and others facilitate the occurrence of a causal process has another consequence that is relevant to the interpretation of the statement "alcohol causes disinhibition." In a sequence of causal occurrences that link alcohol with aggressive behavior, alcohol can be referred to as a disinhibitor of some processes while being an inhibitor to others. Thus the fact that alcohol acts as an inhibitor on the cellular level, as exemplified by the following statement by Grenell (1972): ". . . alcohol does not interfere with the general metabolism of the brain, but inhibits activity localized in the membrane..." (p. 11; my emphasis), may well increase the probability of disinhibition of aggressive behavior. Alcohol is also "an acute inhibitory agent" for event-related potentials in the brain (Nichols & Martin, 1996). Hull (1981) can legitimately speak of alcohol as a possible "inhibitor of self-aware processing" (p. 586; my emphasis), with the implication that alcohol in this way acts as what can be formally called a disinhibitor of a variety of overt excessive behaviors (many of which would fit the purely descriptive label of "disinhibited" behaviors). From this we can conclude that the nature of the causal system ought to be clear before we speak of alcohol as a disinhibitor. To avoid confusion it is important to be clear as to what type of process one refers to in contexts where several levels or systems of determination are involved. This is especially true in a multidisciplinary field, where several types of processes are possible in the determination of behavior, and all of these processes have their inhibiting and disinhibiting factors.

Alcohol-induced "catalysis"

Disinhibition is not the only formal concept that has been found useful in trying to explain intoxicated aggression and other excessive behaviors. Several authors speak of alcohol as being a "catalyst" for aggression. As with alcohol as a disinhibitor, the idea of alcohol as a catalyst vaguely suggests that the aggressive tendencies are already there and will be released if the right trigger is found. As with disinhibition, the catalysis conception seems to be a way to reach an easy non-mentalistic conceptualization of what takes place when intoxicated humans confront one another in aggressive episodes.

The American College Dictionary from 1958 is a source that can be said to reflect the meaning of "catalysis" in use during the last few decades. It defines catalysis as "the causing or accelerating of a chemical change by the addition of a substance (catalyst) which is not permanently affected by the reaction." The formal aspect of the catalyst concept is evident in the extension of meaning proffered by Boyatzis (1983). He applies it to processes in brain physiology: "Alcohol may also act as a catalyst to aggression through physiological effects for those people with brain disorders, e.g., lesions, whether organic or resulting from head injuries, tumors, etc." (p. 319). The term has also been used in alcohol epidemiology and criminology for the purpose of explaining alcohol-related violent actions (e.g., Gibson, Linden & Johnson, 1980; Rushforth et al., 1977). No serious attempts are made to specify the ingredients of the catalysis in such aggregated contexts. However, the formalness of the concept allows indeterminate possibilities for use in explanations from different fields of inquiry.

If one disregards obvious flaws in the analogy, the statement "alcohol is a catalyst for aggression" could be interpreted as saying that introducing alcohol under a certain range of empirical conditions will increase the risk of aggression. However, this is just a generalizing descriptive notion and no explanation of alcohol-related aggression. We must know what the relevant variables are in addition to alcohol, as well as the conditions under which the (better specified) catalysis models apply. In other words, we have to identify the whole catalysis "scenario" before it can be said that alcohol's connection with aggression has been satisfactorily explained.

The catalyst idea, in common with typical disinhibition explanations, intimates that the stage is set and alcohol enters it and acts as a catalyst or a trigger. However, alcohol does not only aggravate interpersonal conflicts so that more open or more serious conflict and aggression occur. In a much higher number of alcohol-related aggression episodes, alcohol is itself very active in setting the stage for conflict through many internal and interactional processes. The catalyst idea is therefore patently false if taken to mean that alcohol is only a catalyst for aggression, and that the number of precipitative conflicts (situations in which catalysis would occur if alcohol were present) is approximately constant independently of the level of alcohol use in a society.

The use of the concept of alcohol-induced catalysis does not hint at any special type of substantive causal process, as is commonly the case when the statement "alcohol causes disinhibition" is used. Nor does it have a well-established descriptive meaning; we do not speak of "catalyzed behavior" in the same way we speak of "disinhibited behavior." The former expression sounds strange, but in light of what we actually know about disinhibition, perhaps "disinhibited behavior" ought to sound equally strange.

The processes involved in molding the aggregated association between alcohol and violence in the real world are variegated and in all likelihood explain varying proportions of the association in different places and at different times. There are even causal processes that decrease the probability of aggression in connection with alcohol use in comparison with sober conditions. The net effect of alcohol use, however, is an increase in conflict, aggression and violence (Pernanen, 1981). Against this varied empirical background, the disinhibition conception and the catalyst idea stand out as empty analogies.

Increasing clarity by specifying the causal process

It was mentioned earlier that there are other concepts that are used in the same formal fashion as disinhibition and catalysis, such as the idea that alcohol use "triggers," "releases" or "elicits" aggression and violence. Common to all these concepts is that they are often used when we do not know what the actual causal processes are but want to indicate that a causal influence exists. In other instances, the assumption may be that the causal mechanism is so well known that we do not have to spell it out and therefore use formal concepts as a form of shorthand.

When the triggering, releasing, disinhibiting, etc. mechanisms are specified, the usefulness of these formal concepts will probably prove to be rather modest. One way to assess their usefulness is to dissect the relationship between alcohol and excessive behavior into components parts. With regard to alcohol-related aggression, one will, in an ideal-type scenario, end up with sequences consisting of episodes of conflict, anger, aggression and physical violence. In these separate episodes, alcohol and intoxication play several different causal roles. A sequential disaggregation will help us get rid of the solid picture in which alcohol only has one specific causal role in one specific type of process. It will also point out component processes of action, reaction and interaction within component episodes that are more amenable to empirical testing than a global reference to disinhibition, catalysis, etc.

4. Volition and social processes In inhibition and disinhibition

If one tries to explain intoxicated behavior by simply referring to disinhibition, it is easy to neglect the causal role of social and social-interactional factors. In general psychological texts, on the other had, references to inhibition and disinhibition are commonly made in the context of social and psychological processes. Referring to inhibitions has in fact become a handy way of acknowledging that social factors such as norms, roles and values impede certain forms of behavior. By stressing social-learning dimensions, the inhibiting and disinhibiting processes are given a volitional character. This character is evident, for example, when descriptions of how experimental subjects "hold back" and "use restraints" are used interchangeably with references to "inhibition" (e.g., Bandura, 1983, p. 19, and Berkowitz, 1983, p. 125). The inhibition concept, which in behavioristic explanations are placed within the mechanistic natural science domain of determination, has hem a volitional goal-oriented meaning. An important question concerns to what extent "inhibition" and "disinhibition" have the same meaning in such voluntaristic contexts as when they are used as a formal pair of concepts in a stimulus-response framework.

One of the most explicit juxtapositions of the volitional and the mechanistic use has been made by Geen and Stonner (1973, p. 146), who speak of "the degree to which they `held back' [i.e., were inhibited) in shocking." Bandura (1983, p. 32) speaks of "moral justifications and palliative characterizations" as being "especially effective disinhibitors." Discussion of alcohol intoxication as providing "the disinhibitory `excuse' desired by the normally restrained eater" (Polivy & Herman, 1976, p. 602) when studying alcohol's effects on eating behavior also indicates that the behavioristic boundaries set for the pair of concepts are too narrow to allow a valid description of the goal orientation that characterizes human behavior (even after drinking). In fact, the concept of disinhibition is often used as a hybrid, lingering between natural science causality and goal-oriented purposiveness. This indeterminacy reflects the fact that the processes underlying inhibition and disinhibition of behavior are as varied as factors and processes generally determining behavior. This is naturally in keeping with the formal aspect of the concept.

The use of, for example, "restraint" and "lack" or "loss" of restraint would often cover the intended meaning of "inhibition" or "disinhibition." The former terms would provide a more honest reference to human volition in the determination of intoxicated behavior, and they would more directly focus scientific attention on how volitional processes under alcohol intoxication differ from their sober counterparts. In all likelihood this is a more fruitful research approach than trying to find a specific alcohol-induced disinhibition process that causes excessive forms of behavior.

5. An illustration of different uses of "disinhibition"

I will here try to illustrate how general cognitive effects of alcohol can cause behavior that is disinhibited in the descriptive sense without anything that could be called a disinhibition process playing a significant role in its determination. Several authors have pointed to cognitive impairment caused by alcohol as an important factor when intoxicated aggression occurs (e.g., Pernanen, 1976; Hull, 1981; Taylor & Leonard, 1983; Josephs & Steele, 1990). Social interaction, including verbal communication, is greatly affected by cognitive impairment because it involves numerous complex cognitive tasks. Unfortunately, interaction and communication under the influence of alcohol have not been studied in any depth in controlled settings. The reasoning that follows is therefore to a great extent based on observations of social interaction in natural tavern situations.

Human interaction and the interpretation of interactive behavior is a thoroughly semiotic activity. Participants in social interaction carry out a series of continuous definitions and redefinitions based on input received from other actors in the situation, as well as on the definition of the social context of the interaction, etc. Verbal communication is only the most obvious form of such semiotic exchange; gestures, body kinetics, and mimicry are also essential components of face-to-face interaction. They play an important role in the encoding and decoding of verbal communication. This is obvious from, for example, the unease felt in communicating over the phone; in this situation, important visual cues must be rather inadequately substituted for by auditory signs clarifying semiotic meaning and personal intention. Among these are exaggerated signs of attentiveness, interest and approval, and spurts of insecure-sounding laughter are sometimes used to indicate a basic "harmlessness" of meaning and intention. The communicational process is not representable within a stimulus-response paradigm; instead, it is a complicated, multichanneled information-processing activity.

One of the most consistent findings in regard to alcohol's cognitive effects is that it diminishes the ability to attend to (and therefore to cognitively process) two or more occurrences at the same time (Moskowitz, 1984). It also impairs the ability to cognitively process unexpected stimuli (Glencross, Hansen & Piek, 1995). When intoxicated individuals are forced into a situation where they must attend to two or more sources of information, they typically select one of the sources for orienting themselves. Human interaction, and verbal interaction in particular, consists of many tasks where attention has to be divided between two or more sources of information and the stimuli presented are comparatively unpredictable. Among other communicational dimensions, the general "frame" (Goffman, 1974) of the interaction must also be kept in mind when interacting with other people; the same verbal communication can be uttered as part of a serious exchange of ideas, as part of a joke, as a recital of something someone said, etc. In addition, it is well known that the semantic content of verbal interaction is often not the only message that a communicator wants to get across. The speaker may want to convey superiority, power, and high status (or the opposite). The words may also be meant and/or interpreted as a grudging acknowledgment, a disguised plea for help, or a veiled challenge to a fight.

One can deduce from the effects of alcohol on the allocation of attention that this monitoring of several informational channels will be impaired after drinking, and that the drinker consequently will turn his/her attention to only one of these. In most cases this will probably be the one that in light of the situation and the drinker's own motivational state will seem most salient. With regard to the impaired ability to monitor the frame of ongoing interaction, we have observed in our tavern studies several instances of alcohol-related aggressive horseplay in which the humorous frame of the interaction very quickly turned serious. This can bee interpreted as being caused by intoxicated individuals' not being able to simultaneously keep in mind information from the ongoing interaction, their own reactions to this interaction, and the modification of the interactional sequence that is provided by a humorous frame.

The above theoretical background will help show how alcohol can cause behavior that can descriptively be called "disinhibited" without this entailing that a disinhibition process has caused it. The following episode was observed in a tavern and bar study in Thunder Bay, Ontario. A man visibly affected by alcohol is sitting at the bar, a couple of seats from two women who have just entered the room. The man and one of the women have just struck up a conversation. At one point the woman can be overheard saying "I think in a relationship, the man should sometimes make breakfast, too." The man immediately responds: "Well, I'll make breakfast for you any time." The woman turns to her female companion, raising her eyebrows.

Was the man's reaction a case of alcohol-induced disinhibition? First of all, by common social standards the behavior can be seen as overstepping the boundaries of social appropriateness (although bar interaction often has its own rules of propriety). One would therefore probably be entitled to call the behavior "disinhibited." Second, in the formal meaning of inhibition--disinhibition, alcohol could also have served as a disinhibiting cue in the expectancy and stimulus--response sense. The setting was saturated with alcohol-related cues, which may have sensitized the man to a specific theme, perhaps sexual in this case, for interpreting what was happening in his interaction with the woman.

Third, did a specific disinhibition process cause the man's remark? Assuming this was a case of allocating depleted cognitive resources to an informational channel, that to the man seemed most salient in the man-woman situation in a bar, there does not seem to be a specific disinhibition process involved. At least no specific biochemical disinhibition process was invoked in this explanation. Instead, the causal process was determined by general cognitive principles concerning how humans react when trying to orient themselves under cognitive impairment. On the other hand, what is monitored by social actors in the more covert informational channels is probably more often inhibited by social conventions and is more often psychodynamically repressed than what is in the overt informational messages. It could therefore be said that psychodynamic disinhibition has resulted. This result has, on the other hand, largely come about through a psychodynamically neutral cognitive impairment process. In the explanatory sense, it is thus questionable if we are justified in calling this an alcohol-induced disinhibition process. However, if we insist on calling any process that causes what can descriptively be called disinhibited behavior (as is sometimes done), this is a clear case of alcohol-induced disinhibition.

6. Concluding remarks

A major conclusion that can be drawn from the above analYsis is that we may designate as a disinhibition theory almost any type of theory that purports to explain behavior under the influence of alcohol, if the resulting behavior can be descriptively labeled as disinhibited. However, this is "disinhibition" only in a weak sense of the word. The perceived explanatory import of the term "disinhibition" in alcohol research often has its roots in the fact that the term is used in explanatory contexts. In these contexts one is led to believe that in the background is a disinhibition process that has substantive theoretical and empirical backing. Because of the lack of explicit theoretical backing, it is not easy to distinguish the explanatory use from the descriptive and the formal meanings of the concept. Even when it is used descriptively or formally, we seem to interpret "disinhibition" in an explanatory manner, and we tend to fill the theoretical gap with our own assumptions.

It should be noted that even if alcohol-specific physiological and/or psychodynamic disinhibition processes were shown to cause alcohol-related aggression, this naturally does not alter the fact that "disinhibition--inhibition" is used with entirely different meanings in other contexts where alcohol's effects on behavior are discussed. The legitimacy of the descriptive and formal uses does not depend on the existence or nonexistence of alcohol-induced biochemical or psychodynamic processes.

Other, more specific meanings of "disinhibition" than the three discussed here can be found in the literature. In one of these, the focus is not on what cue or occurrence initially triggers the act and what states of the organism (such as alcohol intoxication) facilitate the triggering, but is instead on what will facilitate a repetition of the same act. The core meaning is that once an individual has committed an act, there is an increase in the likelihood of committing that act again and again in the same situation, This process may be especially pronounced in the case of acts that are socially inhibited. Once inhibitions are removed, repeating the act will be much easier. Goldstein (1976, p. 73) expresses the idea in the following words: ". . . once aggression is under way, it may operate in a fairly automatic fashion, independently of the behavior of the victim." An illustration from real life is provided by a mother who has hit her small child to the point where he requires hospital care. She explains her behavior in the following words: I hit him and hit him, and the more I hit him, the more I felt like hitting him." Processes of this kind have not been given much attention in research on alcohol-related behavior, although they seem especially relevant in regard to the seriousness of aggression and injuries to the victim in alcohol-related violence. Most studies indicate that alcohol-related violence is more serious than sober violence, as evidenced by the number of stab wounds, number of shots fired, nature of the injuries, etc.

The discussion in this paper points to the general fact that conceptual development does not proceed by means of straightforward definitions and strict logic, but is most often channeled by way of connotations, vague analogies, and prejudicial paradigms. Even purportedly scientific concepts fall prey to the natural tendency of language to grow and develop "organically" instead of logically. After all, the main function of language is to enable interpersonal communication. When using or analyzing scientific concepts, we should be sensitive to the shadings of meaning and outright inconsistencies inherent in an instrument designed for flexible communication.


(1.) The need for conceptual clarity has been repeatedly acknowledged in the study of addictions. The very concepts of "addiction" and "dependence" have on several occasions been targeted for analyses.

(2.) The idea of a specific neurophysiological and/or psychodynamic process is closely linked to questions regarding an intoxicated per son's responsibility for his/her actions and to important legal issues.

(3.) This discussion is not meant to imply that alcohol-induced events in the brain are not relevant in explaining behavior "under the influence of alcohol." They are most certainly active in determining a considerable proportion of that behavior. However, these events and processes are probably not subsumable under one "disinhibition" label.

(4.) The fact that disinhibition is conceptually linked to a pre-existing state of inhibition may explain a certain conceptual pressure to postulate a state of inhibition where none has been specified. In such a situation, it seems natural to assume that innate aggressive, sexual, etc. tendencies have been thwarted and are now released by alcohol.

(5.) Individual instances of disinhibited behavior can of course be explained via syllogistic reasoning by using empirical generalizations, as premises. For instance, consider the statement "John Doe was really aggressive at the party." A syllogistic expatiation would be invoked by someone who says: "Well, John is an inhibited person, and inhibited persons behave aggressively after drinking."

(6.) In our tavern observations, most patrons, even those who were highly intoxicated, were sitting very calmly at their tables and did not show any signs of behavior that could be called "disinhibited" according to the descriptive connotations of this term. It could of course be argued that calm behavior and peaceful interaction can be inhibited in some individuals, and that these behaviors become disinhibited when they drink. The difficulty in mentally conceiving of this possibility is another indication that "disinhibited" has strong descriptive connotations as a label only for certain types of behavior.

(7.) The usefulness of the formal inhibition--disinhibition concept within the stimulus--response framework is understandable because it represents a binary "on-off" code. In stimulus-response logic, "disinhibition" represents the positive or "on" value on the response level (an act is committed, a process is started), and "inhibition" the negative "off' value (an act is not committed, a process is blocked). On the stimulus level this binary logic is represented by the presentation of a stimulus (the "on" value) and the absence of the stimulus (the "off" value). In the final analysis, the formal use of inhibition--disinhibition is an acknowledgment of the simple fact that human behavior is logically representable as a choice between the commission of an act and its non-commission. On the other hand, the empirical crux of the matter is what factors determine whether an act is committed or withheld and how this comes about, and to such questions this formal use of the term does not by itself provide an answer.

(8.) However, Taylor and Leonard (1983) speak of "learned disinhibition" and in this way make a distinction between expectancy disinhibition and neuropsychological or psychodynamic disinhibition.

(9.) It is possible that alcohol's being a chemical substance makes it easier to conceive of its actions in the form of catalysis. Formally, we should be able to speak of, for instance, frustration, insults or threats as catalysts in the same aggression-facilitating sense as alcohol, but I have not come across any such designations.


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Author:Pernanen, Kai
Publication:Contemporary Drug Problems
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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