Alcohol affects areas of the brain involved with behavioral regulation, which may make people more prone to drunk dialing, texting, or posting on social media.
Studies have shown that significant percentages of people who send electronic forms of communication while drunk regret these decisions later. These behaviors can have consequences for people’s social lives and sexual relationships.
How Does Drinking Alcohol Affect Judgment and Inhibition?
When you’re sober, your brain helps you regulate and weigh the risks of your actions. When you drink alcohol, however, you may have less control over your behavior.
A study from Biological Psychiatry found that alcohol impaired inhibitory control by decreasing brain responses in prefrontal areas, a part of the brain that helps us determine the consequences of our actions and regulate behavior.1,2 This suggests that we may lose some of our ability to evaluate our choices and make sound decisions when we’ve been drinking.
Another study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology compared people who had been drinking to those who had not and asked them to take some tests. People who had been drinking were less concerned when they made a mistake and made fewer efforts to stop themselves from making more mistakes.3 In other words, alcohol may make us care less about making poor decisions.
People under the influence of alcohol are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as driving, gambling, and aggression.1 While these behaviors have received a lot of attention due to their potential for negative consequences, drinking can result in other behaviors, such as drunk dialing or texting, that may not seem as dangerous but can still leave people feeling shame and regret.
Drunk dialing, or calling someone while intoxicated, has become common among young adults.
One study looked at the drunk dialing behaviors of college students and why they engaged in this behavior. They found that people drunk dialed for 5 primary reasons:
- Entertainment (to entertain themselves or someone else)
- Social lubricant (person felt more confident and less accountable for their actions)
- Confession of emotion (to tell the person they loved them or missed them)
- Coordination (to meet up or make plans)
- Sexuality (to set up a sexual encounter)4
These motivations suggest that alcohol makes people bolder and more likely to say or do things they would not do while sober.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the outcome was good for the person who made the call. One study found that out of 236 college students sampled, 75.8% made a phone call while drunk, and 33.5% regretted the call later.5
Texting while drunk may be even more widespread than drunk dialing due to the fact that it’s relatively easier to send a text than make a phone call.
In the same study that looked at students’ drunk dialing, 89% of participants had sent a text message while drunk, and 43.6% said that they felt guilty about it later.5
Overall, 51.7% of participants regretted an electronic communication such as a text, phone call, or Facebook post. The researchers discovered that the more the students drank, the more likely they were to engage in a regrettable social behavior. Those who believed that alcohol made social interactions easier were also more likely to drink more and have more frequent regrettable behaviors.5
The authors of the study cautioned that while alcohol may lower inhibitions and make people feel more sociable, this effect can have a downside, as this increased confidence can lead to inappropriate behaviors or actions that people later feel remorseful about.5
Alcohol and Social Media
The same study that examined drunk texting and dialing found that about 36% of the participants made a Facebook post while drunk, and 9% regretted posting while drunk. Almost 15% sent a private Facebook message while drunk, and 5% regretted sending a message.5
However, a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that people who receive positive feedback on alcohol-related social media posts may be more likely to engage in alcohol consumption in the future.6
This suggests that not everyone may regret that Facebook post or tweet—when people receive positive reinforcement on social media, they may be more likely to continue the behavior in the future.
Sometimes It’s Best to Put the Phone Down
Drunk dialing or drunk texting can have real consequences. They can put the person at risk for embarrassment, shame, or loss of a friendship or romantic relationship. The person may be more likely to withdraw from friends after such an incident, which can be damaging for their mental health. Supportive social networks can protect against psychological issues such as depression and anxiety.5
Anyone who has been embarrassed after waking up in the morning and realizing that they overshared on something they posted at 2 a.m. or sent a text they wouldn’t have sent sober knows that such an experience can be a powerful motivator to turn off your phone after you’ve picked up your first drink.
. Gan, G. et al. (2015). Alcohol-induced impairment of inhibitory control is linked to attenuated brain responses in right fronto-temporal cortex. Biological Psychiatry, 76(9), 698-707.
. ScienceDirect. Prefrontal Cortex.
. Bartholow, B., Henry, E., Lust, S., Saults, J.S., and Wood, P. (2012). Alcohol Effects on Performance Monitoring and Adjustment: Affect Modulation and Impairment of Evaluative Cognitive Control. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121(1), 173-186.
. Ferris, A., and Hollenbaugh, E. (2011). Drinking and Dialing: An Exploratory Study of Why College Students Make Cell Phone Calls While Intoxicated. Ohio Communication Journal, 49, 103-126.
. Dunne, E. and Katz, E. (2015). Alcohol Outcome Expectancies and Regrettable Drinking-Related Social Behaviors. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 50(4), 393-398.
. Erevik, E., Torsheim, T., Andreassen, C., Vedaa, O., and Pallesen, S. (2017). Disclosure and Exposure of Alcohol on Social Media and Later Alcohol Use: A Large-Scale Longitudinal Study. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1934.