A single alcoholic drink can shift your moral boundaries, study finds

Have you ever wondered if alcohol has the power to change the way we perceive right from wrong? A recent scientific study delved into this question, uncovering new insights into the impact of alcohol on our moral judgments. The research provides evidence that even a single strong alcoholic drink can influence our willingness to engage in harmful or impure behaviors. The new findings are published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

The relationship between alcohol and behavior has been a subject of curiosity for centuries. We’ve all heard stories of individuals making questionable decisions when under the influence, but what exactly happens in our brains that may lead to these shifts in behavior? Previous research has explored the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes induced by alcohol, but this study aimed to investigate how alcohol consumption might alter the sacralization of moral foundations.

Researchers at the University of Silesia were motivated by the growing body of evidence suggesting that alcohol changes how people think, feel, and act. While it’s well-known that alcohol can lower inhibitions and impair decision-making, its precise effects on moral judgments remained an intriguing mystery.

“Despite the fact that many crimes are conducted under the influence of alcohol, there is little research to understand how drunk people think about right and wrong, or what their intentions are,” said study author Mariola Paruzel-Czachura, an associate professor at the University of Silesia in Katowice in Poland and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Probably we all saw that drunk people might behave immorally or inappropriately, but no one before us studied this tendency in the laboratory. We aimed to test it, asking if drunk participants would be willing to do something wrong. We could not give them permission to do anything wrong, because of ethical reasons. However, we know from other studies that intentions can be a predictor of future behaviors, so we may assume that there is a possibility that our participants would also behave immorally if we did not stop the experiment.”

To explore the connection between alcohol and moral foundations, the research team designed a laboratory study with three distinct groups: the alcohol group, the placebo group, and the control group. Unlike previous studies that primarily relied on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire to assess moral attitudes, this study opted for the Moral Foundations Sacredness Scale (MFSS), a measure explicitly focused on the sacralization of moral foundations.

The MFSS presents participants with scenarios involving violations of the five core moral foundations: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. For instance, participants were asked how much money they would require to perform actions such as sticking a pin into the palm of a child they don’t know (violating the care foundation) or cursing their parents to their face (violating the authority foundation). Responses were given on a scale ranging from “I’d do it for free” to “I’d do it for 1 million dollars,” with an option to decline the action for any amount of money.

Participants were recruited from various sources, such as university websites, social media, and newspapers, ensuring a diverse sample. Eligible participants had to be over 18 years of age, healthy, and not have reported alcohol addiction or plans to become pregnant.

Of the 1,079 volunteers who initially completed a screening survey, 387 met the criteria and were invited to participate in the laboratory study. After applying the preregistered exclusion criteria, data from 58 participants were excluded from analysis due to failing attention checks. The final sample consisted of 329 participants, with an age range of 18 to 52 years, representing a diverse group.

Participants were instructed not to consume alcohol for 24 hours, avoid taking medication, and refrain from eating for at least three hours before the study. The experimental setup involved three research assistants who played key roles in the study. The first assistant recorded participants’ weight and measured their blood alcohol level using a breathalyzer to ensure that participants in the control and placebo groups remained sober. The second assistant prepared the drinks and assigned participants to their respective experimental conditions, while the third assistant facilitated the necessary paperwork and served the drinks, unaware of the participants’ assigned condition.

The experiment commenced with participants consuming their respective drinks within a 10-minute window. Two emotionally neutral movie clips were shown to all participants to allow time for alcohol absorption. After the movies, participants’ blood alcohol levels were measured again to confirm intoxication in the alcohol group. In the placebo condition, a specially designed broken breathalyzer was used to maintain the illusion of alcohol consumption. Following these procedures, participants completed the main survey, providing crucial data for the study.

The researchers discovered differences in the sacralization of the care and purity foundations (but found no such changes in fairness, loyalty, or authority). Participants in the control group exhibited higher sacralization levels for care and purity compared to those in the experimental group. Specifically, they were more resistant to harming others and less willing to engage in impure behaviors than their intoxicated counterparts.

The effects observed in the study were particularly notable for the purity foundation, where the influence of alcohol was more pronounced. Intoxicated participants showed a greater willingness to consider engaging in impure behaviors, such attending an event where participants act like animals, “crawling
around naked and urinating on stage.”

“Drunk people want to do more immoral things than sober people,” Paruzel-Czachura told PsyPost. “But we only observed it for two types of behaviors: related to harming others and related to so-called purity violations.”

These findings are intriguing and offer a fresh perspective on the relationship between alcohol intoxication and moral judgment. The study suggests that even a single alcoholic drink can influence individuals’ perceptions of right and wrong, potentially making them more open to engaging in behaviors they might otherwise consider immoral.

“We suspected receiving null results (no effect), as in my other studies we could not find any differences between drunk and sober participants in a way in which they thought about what is right or wrong,” Paruzel-Czachura said. “But here, surprisingly, we saw significant results. Now we can conclude that probably when people drink alcohol (one drink) they still think the same about moral issues, but at the same time, they are more willing to do something wrong. It may be related to cognitive and emotional changes after drinking, but we did not explain it in our study. We need more experiments to understand why we observed an effect.”

While this research provides valuable insights, it’s important to consider its limitations. One limitation arises from the challenge of convincing participants in the placebo condition that they consumed alcohol, given the common experience of alcohol intoxication. Additionally, this study tested only one dose of alcohol, leaving room for future research to explore how different alcohol doses might affect moral judgment.

“As above, we need to explain why it happens,” Paruzel-Czachura said. “Moreover, we need to test participants with different doses than in our study. Please remember, that we gave them only one strong alcoholic drink. We cannot make any conclusions about what would happen after two or more drinks.”

These findings contribute to our understanding of why some individuals, under the influence of alcohol, may make morally questionable decisions, including engaging in harmful or impure actions. While the study is not without its limitations, it highlights the importance of further research into the complex interplay between alcohol and morality.

“Alcohol has been with us for centuries, it is commonly used in many cultures, but surprisingly there is little research to understand how it impacts human morality,” Paruzel-Czachura told PsyPost. “We need to conduct more studies on this topic, as these studies have huge practical implications.”

The study, “Alcohol and morality: one alcoholic drink is enough to make people declare to harm others and behave impurely“, was authored by Mariola Paruzel‑Czachura, Katarzyna Pypno, and Piotr Sorokowski.

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