Why You’re Not Yourself When You Drink, Part 3

Why is it that you’re not yourself when you drink? Part of it may be because alcohol severely impairs one’s ability to control their behavior.

Problems at work

Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia seems to have found a direct link between alcohol consumption and impaired self-control.

What the Findings Show

University of Missouri-Columbia researchers published a paper titled “Alcohol effects on performance monitoring and adjustment: affect modulation and impairment of evaluative cognitive control.” In that paper, the authors posit that alcohol chemicals dull the brain’s neural signal intended to warn people when they are making a mistake. The result? Alcohol consumption leads to a marked reduction in self-control, which is why otherwise intelligent and collected individuals often do embarrassing, unintelligent, and even dangerous things while intoxicated.1

During the study, researchers measured the brain activity of 67 participants aged 21-35. The participants worked to complete challenging computer tasks, tasks designed to elicit some errors from the participants. Some of the participants were given alcohol; others weren’t. When participants who’d been given alcohol made mistakes in their tasks, their brain scans showed less activity in the “alarm signal” portions of the brain than those who hadn’t been given alcohol.

Further, the alcohol group did not take “corrective” measures following errors, as the control group did. “In tasks like the one we used, although we encourage people to try to respond as quickly as possible, it is very common for people to respond more slowly following an error, as a way of trying to regain self-control,” said Bruce Bartholow, associate professor of psychology in the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science. “That’s what we saw in our placebo group. The alcohol group participants didn’t do this,” Bartholow said. According to the researchers, the findings put science one step closer to understanding how and why people who drink alcohol often lose some of their self-control in the process.2

“Our study shows that alcohol doesn’t reduce your awareness of mistakes – it reduces how much you care about making those mistakes.”

From the research, the scientists concluded that alcohol influences the areas of the brain that warn the individual that they are making (or are about to make) a mistake. “When people make mistakes, activity in a part of the brain responsible for monitoring behavior increases, essentially sending an alarm signal to other parts of the brain indicating that something went wrong,” said Bartholow, commenting on the findings. “Our study isn’t the first to show that alcohol reduces this alarm signal, but contrary to previous studies, our study shows that alcohol doesn’t reduce your awareness of mistakes – it reduces how much you care about making those mistakes.” Bartholow’s study results showed all participants who had alcohol experienced this reduction in self-control and attention to mistakes, suggesting this may be a universal effect of alcohol.

Alcohol Does More than Hamper Self-Control

Man has trouble to focus while driving.

While it is important to study alcohol’s effect on people and to isolate specific ways alcohol influences the brain, it’s also important not to lose sight of the myriad ways in which alcohol affects other areas of one’s health. In addition to influencing brain activity and affecting how people think, act, behave, feel, and respond, alcohol impacts several areas of the body, always negatively.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol affects critical systems and organs within the body, including:3

  • The brain. In addition to influencing brain chemistry in a way that leads to behavioral changes, the chemicals in alcohol also harm the brain. When someone drinks alcohol over time, it can permanently alter the brain’s communication pathways, affecting cognitive function and changing how the brain looks and works.

  • The heart. Alcohol consumption can lead to several cardiovascular complications, including cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke, and high blood pressure.

  • The liver. The liver is severely impacted by alcohol, especially when one drinks a lot, often, and over time. About half of the roughly 100,000 people who die from liver disease die from alcohol-related liver disease.

  • The pancreas. Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce a toxic substance that harms the pancreas, eventually leading to pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.

  • Alcohol consumption is also directly linked to cancer. From the National Cancer Institute, “The evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks–particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time–the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer. Even those who have no more than one drink per day and people who binge drink (those who consume 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks for men in one sitting) have a modestly increased risk of some cancers. Based on data from 2009, an estimated 3.5% of cancer deaths in the United States (about 19,500 deaths) were alcohol related.” 4

  • Finally, alcohol also impairs immune function. When people drink to excess, they are more likely to get sick when intoxicated and for up to 24 hours after drinking.

The Scope of Alcohol Abuse Today, America’s Next Public Health Emergency

Per 2021 data, the use of alcohol in the United States is increasing, with a reported 174 million Americans over the age of 12 saying they drank alcohol in the past year and 133 million saying they drank alcohol with some regularity. At least 60 million Americans drink to excess with some regularity, with at least 16 million meeting the criteria for alcohol addiction.5

Higher and higher levels of alcohol consumption – in terms of the number of people who drink, volume consumed, and frequency of consumption – all lead to more emergencies and deaths. About 210,000 emergency department visits yearly are alcohol-related, a 47% increase since 2006. Further, about 140,000 people die from alcohol-related causes yearly, a 25% increase from 2019. Finally, about 13,384 people die in alcohol-related traffic incidents each year, a number that has been extremely challenging to reduce despite immense public health and law enforcement efforts.

The Need for Treatment

Wife is helping alcoholic husband to get treatment.

Entire books have been written on the many ways in which alcohol affects people. From the physiological effects regarding how alcohol interacts with the body to the long-term effects of drinking over time, the impact alcohol has on people physically cannot be understated. Further, alcohol consumption can significantly change one’s mental, emotional, and psychological state. Just as with physical effects, these mental/emotional effects can manifest in the short term and over time.

A loss of self-control and behavioral regulation is one of many ways alcohol affects people. When people consume alcohol to excess and do so repeatedly, they increase their risk of becoming addicted to the substance. If you know someone who has become addicted to alcohol, please do everything you can to get them help at a qualified residential alcohol addiction treatment center. Don’t wait until it is too late and your loved one becomes another statistic.


  1. NIH. “Alcohol effects on performance monitoring and adjustment: affect modulation and impairment of evaluative cognitive control.” National Institutes of Health, 2011. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov ↩︎

  2. ScienceDaily. “Alcohol dulls brain ‘alarm’ that monitors mistakes, study finds.” Science Daily, 2011. sciencedaily.com ↩︎

  3. NIAAA. “Alcohol’s Effects on Health.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023. niaaa.nih.gov ↩︎

  4. NCI. “Alcohol and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute, 2023. cancer.gov ↩︎

  5. NIAAA. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023. niaaa.nih.gov ↩︎