Thirst Aid: Does Alcohol Attenuate or Exacerbate Negative Affect and Aggression Following Social Rejection?

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Credit: By Keng Susumpow, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Credit: By Keng Susumpow, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This is a brief introduction to an ongoing project examining the effect of alcohol on human affective and behavioral reactions to ostracism. As such, it represents the first of a two-part submission—the second part will be reported once the project has been completed. The intention of the “preview” is to identify the gap in our understanding of how people react to being socially excluded while under the influence of acute alcohol intoxication as well as how that intoxication may affect aggressive responses toward their ostracizer. 

Loneliness is the substrate and foundation of belonging, the gravitational field that draws us home and in the beautiful essence of its isolation, the hand reaching out for togetherness (Whyte, 2015, “Loneliness”). 

Credit: By Evandro Sudré, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Credit: By Evandro Sudré, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What we have named as anger on the surface is the violent outer response to our own inner powerlessness, a powerlessness connected to such a profound sense of rawness and care that it can find no proper outer body or identity or voice, or way of life to hold it (Whyte, 2015, “Anger”).

We know that direct interpersonal aggression can have severe physical and psychological consequences over the immediate and long term. After receiving direct physical or verbal provocation from another, one typically experiences an urge to behave aggressively toward the offending source. But what happens when someone receives a more indirect form of provocation, such as social rejection? Imagine going out to a happy hour with some co-workers, enjoying a bit of conversation, and then being edged out when another joins the group. You make several attempts to join back into the conversation only to get the cold shoulder. Ostracism can be a strong source of provocation—in the situation described, you may feel helpless, hurt, and angry as well as an urge for aggression just to get some acknowledgment from those who left you out (Warburton, Williams, & Ciarns, 2006).
Ostracism has been shown to elicit negative affect across cultures (Fiske & Yamamoto, 2005), settings (laboratory and ecological), relationships (e.g., stranger, acquaintance, close others [Nezlek, Wesselmann, Wheeler, & Williams, 2012], despised outgroups [Gonsalkorale & Williams, 2007], and even computer players in the Cyberball ostracism paradigm [Zadro, Williams, & Richardson, 2004]). Humans are very sensitive to cues that their social goals may be impeded by the actions of others, which activate powerful negative emotional experiences and behaviors consonant with the motivating affect (e.g., prosocial behavior to re-establish social connection or aggression to provoke acknowledgment; Wesselmann, Ren, & Williams, 2015).

Credit: By Tim Fuller, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Credit: By Tim Fuller, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The experience of social exclusion is aversive and people engage in emotion regulation strategies to help them cope (see Riva, 2016 for review). Such strategies vary in the degree to which they are (a) motivated to avoid or approach the source of negative emotion, and (b) cognitive or behavioral in execution. For example, a cognitive avoidance strategy is suppression of event-related thoughts, while a cognitive approach strategy is positive reappraisal of the rejection situation. Likewise, a behavioral approach strategy may be aggression toward the rejection source while a behavioral avoidance strategy may be the use of alcohol and other drugs to cope. Some strategies are more adaptive than others (e.g., positive reappraisal; Sethi, Moulds, & Richardson, 2013) and how a person tries to cope with the pain of ostracism can exacerbate the overall aversiveness of the experience.

Credit: By bearclau, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Credit: By bearclau, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The fact that people turn to substances to cope with physical and emotional pain comes as no surprise—over 18 percent of adults with mental illness in the United States have co-occurring substance abuse disorders and 79.1 percent of those include Alcohol Use Disorder (Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 2015). We know that people who have been socially excluded become angry at their ostracizers and subsequently drink greater quantities of alcohol relative to those who were included and unprovoked (Rabinovitz, 2014). Further, the likelihood of drinking is potentiated when someone is excluded by those with whom they share close relationships (Laws, Ellerbeck, Rodrigues, Simmons, & Ansell, in press). However, women may use alcohol differently than men following social rejection (Bacon, Crandford, & Blumenthal, 2015). Even so, it is well-established that people generally increase their substance use as a consequence of feeling excluded, powerless, and vulnerable. However, what is less understood is how the influence of substances, and alcohol more specifically, may act as a moderator of how people experience and react to social exclusion.

Credit: By b i b o y w o r x x x, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Credit: By b i b o y w o r x x x, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Two competing etiological theories for intoxicated behavior offer very different predictions regarding how alcohol may shape the pain of being left out. Pain Overlap Theory (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2005) is based on the premise that emotional and physical pain are represented and processed by way of the same neural circuits and, as such, substances that dull physical pain should dull emotional pain. Studies have shown that acetaminophen blunts reactions to positively and negatively valenced stimuli (Durso, Luttrell, & Way, 2015) and that marijuana use may dull social pain (Deckman, DeWall, Way, Gilman, & Richman, 2014). As alcohol has physiological analgesic effects, pain overlap theory would similarly propose that alcohol intoxication should dull the affective pain of social rejection. Therefore, an inebriate may be spared the pain of ostracism and decrease the aggressive impulse typically experienced by a sober individual under the same circumstances.

However, Alcohol Myopia Theory (AMT; Steele & Josephs, 1990) offers an opposite prediction. AMT suggests that alcohol intoxication constricts an inebriate's general cognitive faculties and imposes an attentional bias such that only the most salient cues are processed (i.e., myopia). If instigating cues are most salient, then alcohol intoxication greatly increases the likelihood that someone will be aggressive (Taylor, Schmutte, Leonard, & Cranston, 1979). However, alcohol does not always increase aggression; if non-aggressive cues are most salient, inebriates are much less aggressive than their sober counterparts under the same circumstances (Gallagher & Parrott, 2011; Giancola & Corman, 2007). Even so, AMT proposes that alcohol intoxication should enhance the salience of social rejection cues, intensify the resulting negative affect it generates, and result in increased aggression toward the source of rejection.

To our knowledge, only two studies with human subjects have investigated the role of alcohol intoxication on affective reactions to ostracism. One field study recruited intoxicated patrons at a bar (mean BAC = 0.066) and the results indicated that subjective intoxication—not BAC—predicted dulled affective reactions to being included or excluded in Cyberball (Hales, Williams, & Eckhardt, 2015). The laboratory-based study involved administration of a moderate dose of alcohol (mean peak BAC = 0.050) to a community sample of hazardous drinkers who then completed the inclusion and exclusion conditions of Cyberball in a fixed sequence (Buckingham et al., 2016). Their results indicated that while ostracism had a main effect on state affect, alcohol intoxication did not moderate this relationship. 

Taken together, these two studies paint a picture in which physiological alcohol intoxication has little influence on how people react affectively to ostracism. However, it is important to note the limitations of these studies that must be addressed before we can draw such a conclusion. Hales et al. (2015) subjected participants to ostracism after pulling them away from large friend groups (to which they would return shortly after participation) in a barroom environment full of distractions. Further, the experimenters lacked control over participant BAC at the start of the experiment and whether they were on the ascending or descending limb of the BAC curve. Buckingham et al. (2016) attempted to reduce some of these limitations by employing a laboratory alcohol administration design. However, the dose of alcohol used was moderate and achieved a peak BAC below the threshold at which alcohol may potentiate aggressive behavior (Duke, Giancola, Morris, Holt, & Gunn, 2015). Additionally, the pre-post experiment drop in BAC (i.e., from 0.050 to 0.042) and the fixed sequence of Cyberball inclusion-exclusion suggests that participants were on the descending limb of the BAC curve during the ostracism manipulation. This presents a concern because prior research of intoxicated aggression has shown that, relative to those on the ascending limb, participants on the descending limb are no more or less aggressive than sober controls (Giancola & Zeichner, 1997).

To address a number of the concerns outlined above, what we need is controlled, laboratory-based research that utilizes an alcohol dosing strategy sufficient to achieve a BAC of at least 0.08 with continued ascension throughout the ostracism and behavioral assessment sequence. The design should include three beverage conditions (i.e., alcohol, placebo, and control) so that it is possible to delineate the influence of subjective relative to physiological intoxication on affective reactions and behavioral responses to ostracism. The study should also include an opportunity for participants to interact with their ostracizers following the social exclusion manipulation to determine alcohol’s role in how they choose to respond. We are carrying out a study according to these design principles and look forward to providing the results in Part II of this blog post!

Summing it up:

  • Social rejection causes strong negative affective experiences and people engage in a number of behaviors to deal with it, including aggression and heavy alcohol use.
  • We know how alcohol is used as a consequence of ostracism but understand relatively little about what role alcohol plays in moderating the experience of social rejection. Further, we need to understand how the experience of ostracism while intoxicated influences subsequent behavior choices, such as aggression toward the ostracizer.

Joel G. Sprunger is a predoctoral fellow and doctoral candidate in clinical psychology in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University.
Christopher I. Eckhardt is a professor and director of clinical training in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University.

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