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I Didn’t Mean To Do That, Did I?

«The Drunkenness of Noah», Sistine Chapel ceil...

The Drunkenness of Noah - but was it on purpose?

I have just been looking at a wonderful article that was published a few weeks ago by Laurent Begue and colleagues from the University of Grenoble in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

It deals with intentionality bias – whereby we tend to ascribe intention to other people’s actions more than we would do to our own.

Begue et al build their work on earlier studies by Evelyn Rosset (2008) in this field but, whereas Rosset and colleagues at the University of Boston investigated sober subjects, Begue’s team looked at the impact of alcohol and intoxication on this phenomenon.

Their findings show a greater propensity to ascribe intention after drinking alcohol than otherwise and there have been a number of articles – both academic and popular – highlighting the importance of this for understanding and controlling violent behaviour in pubs and bars.

Other commentators have attacked the ethics and design of this study, particularly regarding the degree to which participants consumed alcohol in a supposed taste test without previously giving their explicit consent.

Whilst the jury might be out on the ethical correctness of this procedure, there were other questions that this study raises. For example. Begue et al recruited 92 men to take part in this study. So the findings were all based on male responses. Does this tell us anything at all about intentionality in women? Shouldn’t we find out whether women are more or less prone to accuse others in this way, especially after drinking?

This study involved some of the participants consuming six single shot measures of vodka – which constitutes neither sustained nor heavy drinking. What, one wonders, is the impact of sustained or heavy drinking on such an intentionality effect? Are we likely to see greater difference or a lower impact due to a build-up of tolerance to drinking alcohol?

When we consider that Gray & Wegner (2008) found that subjects suffered more pain from supposedly intentionally inflicted injury than otherwise, the complex situation arises whereby a drunk person might fallaciously ascribe intentionality to an action which might usually  have caused little discomfort but was experienced on this occasion as causing serious pain.

Whatever happens thereafter, whether the victim involves the police or the accidental aggressor is attacked, it would appear that courts will be more likely to assume intentionality than may actually be justifiable.

The implications of this work and any necessary follow-on studies will be important for our understanding of a range of alcohol-related behaviour, particularly domestic violence.

Clearly, this latest study still has some questions to answer but it also raises intriguing and important issues for those charged with handling and treating aggression as well as those seeking to ensure fair judgments in a court of law.


Begue, L., Bushman, B., Giancola, P., Subra, B., & Rosset, E. (2010) “There Is No Such Thing as an Accident,” Especially When People Are Drunk. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(10), 1301-1304.

Gray K & Wegner DM (2008); The Sting of Intentional Pain; Psychological Science; December 2008; 19: 1260-1262.

Rosset E (2008); It’s no accident: Our bias for intentional explanations;  Cognition; Volume 108, Issue 3, September 2008, Pages 771-780

One Comment
  1. Thank you! Drinking oneself into oblivion does not excuse bad ethical decisions.

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

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