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The Games Drinkers Play

ugaresearch editor Helen Fosgate talks with Jennifer Monahan about how drinking alcohol affects peoples’ perceptions of sexual risk—and more specifically, how women respond to sexual-risk cues.

The Monahan File
Whittier California
BA (1986), MA (1988): University of Maryland Ph.D: (1993) University of Southern California
Work history
United States Air Force: 4 years (1978-1983); then onto college, grad school and UGA
At UGA since
Research area:
Interpersonal communication, message processing
Research funding
(major sources)
Communication Theory, Communication & Social Cognition, Empirical Research Methods, Advanced Interpersonal Communication, Intercultural Communication, Message Design, Human Communication & Society
Bill Ryland
Caitlin & Kerry Monahan, Erin & Rachel Ryland
outside work
Travel, mystery novels, biographies, music festivals
Fan of :
College football!
Recent book
you’d recommend
The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs


What are some of the major behavioral effects of drinking, and are they closely related to why people drink in the first place?

A: After many years of studying people under the influence, we’ve found that men become more persistent when they drink—in large part, they believe that tasks are easier to accomplish. In research where participants play the game “$10,000 Pyramid,” intoxicated men do better because they rarely pass. Sober men pass when they are having difficulty.

We’ve also wanted to know how alcohol affects goal attainment. Sober people can handle the internal discourse of conflicting goals, but an intoxicated person cannot. The drinking person is more focused on reaching a goal than about considering the consequences—whether it’s beating a red light or something else that may hurt a relationship.

If you look at why people drink, you’ll find that they have certain expectations. “It relaxes me,” for example, or “It makes me more fun.” In other words, alcohol allows you to do or say what you really want to when sober. The problems come when you can no longer listen to the inhibition cues that make you consider consequences and then modify your behavior. A lot of people use alcohol as an excuse to do what they wouldn’t do otherwise, and then blame the alcohol.

Q: Laboratory studies on the effects of alcohol on women are far fewer than similar studies on men. Why is that?

A: Studies on drinking that involve women are more expensive and complicated because researchers have to consider the possibility of pregnancy. In order for a woman to participate, she must be scheduled within one to two days after the end of her menstrual cycle so as to ensure she isn’t pregnant. If the research is federally funded, her participation requires a pregnancy test.

Secondly, there is still a degree of unconscious sexism in alcohol research. Every study I’ve conducted involving women has been questioned. Reviewers always say, “Why didn’t you include men in this study?” or “These results may not generalize to men.” I’ve yet to hear either of these questions about women when we conduct alcohol studies with men.

Q: A couple of your studies look specifically at how women’s perceptions of men’s behavior—including comments or advances—become altered when women are intoxicated. What are some important things you’ve discovered?

A: Originally, I was interested in studying risky sexual behavior, and I was working with a colleague who asked participants to recall a time in their lives when they had risky sex. Most of their responses involved alcohol—lots of it—and that got our attention. This has been a research area for me ever since.

Men, when drinking, find women more sexually attractive. But we’ve observed that intoxicated women don’t see men as more sexually attractive; they instead view men more benignly and risky sexual behavior as less dangerous. Thus women sometimes find themselves in difficult situations because it takes them longer to figure out that the man may be a risk. Drinking affects the “executive control functions” of the brain, rendering the inebriated unable to make important connections, even as they’re aware of what they are doing.

For example, if a woman is talking with a man in a bar and all of a sudden he suggests going outside to his car, she’s moving from a public and relatively safe environment to one that is unknown and potentially risky. She can tell you that she recognized the specific point at which she made a risky decision, but she can’t articulate why she didn’t act otherwise.

Q: You are no doubt aware of the consequences of underage and binge drinking on college campuses across the country, including UGA. Can you offer any insights into why binge drinking continues to be such a problem and what, if anything, university administrators can do about it?

A: Drinking has been around colleges and universities since their beginnings. However, the issue is much more problematic today because there are so many more students—32,000-plus at UGA alone—and they include men and women alike. Add to that a college town with 75 bars, many of which sponsor rock-bottom beer specials, and it’s easy to understand why drinking is such an issue.

We commonly see at least two types of binge drinkers: college-age drinkers and older alcoholics. Students tend to drink the most as freshmen and sophomores and then taper off in their junior and senior years—unless they have an alcohol problem. In the past, there was a double standard with regard to drinking and gender, but now women are as likely to drink like men.

In studies of college fraternities and sororities, many researchers believe that alcohol often leads to date rape. But because both women and men are ostracized if they press charges, the incidents go largely unreported.

Students perceive their drinking as part of growing up, so in all likelihood we can’t make the practice go away. But there must be consequences, and universities are starting to address them by calling parents and trying to identify problem drinkers early. A higher tax on drinks would likely help, too. The revenue raised could be used for more stringent enforcement and sustained alcohol-treatment programs. Cities could help by using zoning laws to limit the number of bars and by regulating the costs of drinks to discourage price competition between bars.


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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