Why Do We Do Stupid Things When We Drink?

Why do we so commonly confuse bad ideas for good when we drink? There’s no shortage of eye-opening examples in the news: the intoxicated man who attempts to enter the home of a former girlfriend and ends up stuck in her chimney, the cowboy who visits his favorite watering hole on his horse and lassoes a customer, the pub patron who decides to test his skill as a crocodile rider and pays with part of his leg.

And chances are you have a drinking story or two (or more) of your own — a boozy, post-prom prank that landed you in the back of a squad car, a broken arm from a rooftop jump into a pool, a 2 a.m. text to the ex.

What is it about drinking that makes us so stupid?

There’s no single answer, but alcohol consumption brings with it a whole host of brain changes that can set you up to make lousy choices that range from embarrassing (“Let’s do some karaoke!) to deadly (“I’ll drive”).

Your Brain on Booze

With each drink, we affect the brain’s chemical messengers — the neurotransmitters — that either excite or inhibit the signals controlling our processes, behaviors and emotions. For example, alcohol increases GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and decreases glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, resulting in the clumsiness, slurred speech and physiological slowdown that drinkers know so well. It also boosts dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical, delivering a surge of well-being — at least in the beginning. Put these effects together, and we can end up chasing a good feeling that can quickly turn into anything but.

In addition, studies have shown:

Alcohol makes us worse at perceiving threats. In 2008, researchers scanned the brain activity of a group of social drinkers as they were intravenously administered either the equivalent of a few drinks or a harmless saline solution. When the sober participants were shown pictures of people who looked afraid, activity spiked in the part of the brain involved in avoidance and fear. In the “drinking” group, however, there was no such reaction to the same images; the alcohol did light up the brain’s reward circuits, however. The upshot? Drinking interferes with our ability to recognize threats and makes it more likely we’ll take risks. Enough drinks and even riding a crocodile can seem like a good idea.

Alcohol makes us worse at monitoring our behavior. When we make mistakes, our brains send signals telling us so, which allows us to adjust our behavior. Studies confirm those signals are diminished when we drink, but a 2011 study by University of Missouri researchers went deeper into the why behind the process. They evaluated the effects of alcohol on those doing a series of tricky cognitive tests and determined that it wasn’t that we don’t know that we are making mistakes when we are drunk, it’s that we don’t care as much. This “not caring” is why a drink can feel like a plus when trying to conquer our anxiety, such as when we walk into an intimidating social setting. But too much liquid courage and things can get ugly fast.

We are unrealistic about our drinking. To top it off, a 2011 study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found we don’t even tend to learn from our drinking mistakes — unless they are big and frequent. The night spent parked next to the toilet can be discounted because we are somehow able to delude ourselves into believing the good drinking experiences, not the bad, will repeat themselves. Our alcohol consumption, the study concluded, is viewed through “rose-colored beer goggles.”

A Dangerous Illusion

So, how to trade stupid for smart? That has to start before we bring the drink to our lips. Recognize that alcohol is a charmer that tricks us into thinking we are happier, sexier, smoother, more connected to our fellow man and more impervious to danger than we were before we drank it. In other words, it’s an illusion that impels us toward bold action just when we are least able to pull it off.