The urge to binge mindlessly, though it can strike at any time, seems to stir in the collective unconscious during the last weeks of winter. Maybe it’s the television images from places like Fort Lauderdale and Cabo San Lucas, of communications majors’ face planting outside bars or on beaches.
Or perhaps it’s a simple a case of seasonal affective disorder in reverse. Not SAD at all, but anticipation of warmth and eagerness for a little disorder.
Either way, researchers have had a hard time understanding binge behavior. Until recently, their definition of binge drinking — five drinks or more in 24 hours — was so loose that it invited debate and ridicule from some scholars. And investigators who ventured into the field, into the spray of warm backwash and press of wet T-shirts, often returned with findings like this one from a 2006 study: “Spring break trips are a risk factor for escalated alcohol use.”
Or this, from a 1998 analysis: “The men’s reported levels of alcohol consumption, binge drinking and intoxication were significantly higher than the women’s.”
In fact, the dynamics of bingeing may have more to do with personal and cultural expectations than with the number of upside-down margaritas consumed. In their classic 1969 book, “Drunken Comportment,” recently out in paperback, the social scientists Craig MacAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton wrote that the disconnect between the conventional wisdom on drunken behavior and the available evidence “is even now so scandalous as to exceed the limits of reasonable toleration.”
They detailed the vast differences in the way people from diverse cultures behave after excessive alcohol. In contrast to nearby tribes, for example, the Yuruna Indians in the Xingu region of Brazil would become exceptionally reserved when rendered sideways by large helpings of moonshine. The Camba of eastern Bolivia would drink excessively twice a month. Sitting in a circle, they would toast one another, more lavishly with each pop.
In a Japanese island village, Takashima, people knew a drinking occasion had gone completely off the dials if villagers began to sing or, wilder still, to dance. Aggression, sexual or otherwise, was unheard of during these sessions.
Western cultures are more likely to excuse binge drinking as a needed mental vacation. “An awful lot of cultures have institutionalized bingeing as a kind of time out like Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve, a culturally recognized period where a certain amount of acting out is acceptable,” said Dwight Heath, emeritus professor of anthropology at Brown.
Not to say that would-be bingers, when ordering that first tray of Irish car bombs for the table, think about discharging a cultural tradition. They have their own reasons. And those, too, shape subsequent drunken behavior.
In a series of studies in the 1970s and ’80s, psychologists at the University of Washington put more than 300 students into a study room outfitted like a bar with mirrors, music and a stretch of polished pine. The researchers served alcoholic drinks, most often icy vodka tonics, to some of the students and nonalcoholic ones, usually icy tonic water, to others. The drinks looked and tasted the same, and the students typically drank five in an hour or two.
The studies found that people who thought they were drinking alcohol behaved exactly as aggressively, or as affectionately, or as merrily as they expected to when drunk. “No significant difference between those who got alcohol and those who didn’t,” Alan Marlatt, the senior author, said. “Their behavior was totally determined by their expectations of how they would behave.”
In a repeat of the session performed for a coming documentary, one participant insisted that she could not have been drinking because alcohol always made her flush.
“We told her that, yes, in fact she was drinking it,” Dr. Marlatt said. “She immediately flushed.”
Somewhere between personal preferences and social custom, moreover, the peer group asserts itself. In a recent study, public health researchers in New Zealand conducted extensive interviews with teenage girls in one of two cliques at a high school. Both groups associated drinking with uninhibited behavior — and that is what they exhibited. But one group considered being uninhibited to include making out, and the other considered it to include far more.
In their discussion, Dr. MacAndrew and Dr. Edgerton acknowledged that Western societies, and certainly the United States, send multiple signals on bingeing. At times, the signals cross, as when movies show spring-break binging as sunburned, sexy fun, while health pronouncements make it look like an orgy of near-criminal behavior.
At other times, cultural expectations and personal preferences reinforce each other. The hope that a wild session might “reveal new things about myself” or “allow me to act completely out of character” is widely echoed in literature, pop culture and drinking lore. If the research is a guide, those hopes should be self-fulfilling at some level.
Unless, that is, the binge goes beyond any reasonable definition of excess. Then the amount of tequila consumed matters very much — and poison is poison in any culture.