Investigating drunk personality: Research from MIMH’s Rachel Winograd garners international attention

by | May 21, 2017

Do other people notice the personality changes drinkers self-report? Sometimes, yes – especially when it comes to extraversion.
Rachel Winograd, UMSL–MIMH

Rachel Winograd’s research on drunk personality was just recently published online and will soon appear in the print version of “Clinical Psychological Science.” (Photo by August Jennewein)

How does a person perceive themselves when they’re drinking?

Perhaps they think they’re pretty zen after multiple glasses of Zinfandel. Or they feel they’re much more agreeable after a tumbler of scotch.

But do other people notice those personality changes?

According to a study from University of Missouri–St. Louis Assistant Research Professor Rachel Winograd, in most cases – probably not.

In fact, the discrepancy between the personality changes intoxicated individuals self-report and those perceived by trained observers was one of the most surprising discoveries in the psychologist’s work, which was published online last week and will soon appear in the print version of “Clinical Psychological Science.”

Winograd, who is now a primary investigator for UMSL’s Missouri Institute of Mental Health, conducted the research during her graduate study at the University of Missouri–Columbia. Her goal was to build upon prior work in which she and her colleagues investigated the concept of “drunk personality.”

“We established systematic personality changes associated with intoxication and important individual differences in these effects,” she explained. “We knew the next step was to standardize the dose of alcohol [make sure “drunk” represented about the same thing for the people in the study] and add an observational component [test if these changes were perceived by others looking on].”

Winograd and her team did just that.

Through a carefully controlled and rigorously Institutional Review Board-approved process, the researchers invited groups of same-gender friends – who had previously completed surveys about perceptions of their own drunk and sober personality traits – into the research lab.

Members in half the groups were supplied with a measured amount of alcohol – about enough to produce a .09 level of intoxication – and the other half were not.

The friends engaged in activities and games while their behavior was being recorded, later to be viewed by multiple trained observers familiar with the Five-Factor Model of personality. The group members self-reported their own perceptions of personality changes twice while being observed.

The participants who drank alcohol reported changes in all five personality factors – neuroticism, extraversion, openness to new experiences/intellect, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

But in terms of what the observers witnessed, the only trait difference that consistently matched those self-reports was extraversion.

As Winograd explained, “extraversion was the only factor robustly perceived to be different across participants in alcohol and sober conditions.”

So, if there were so many discrepancies in what was felt versus what was perceived, who was right?

“We believe the participants and raters were both accurate and inaccurate,” Winograd said. “The raters reliably reported what was visible to them and nothing more, and the participants experienced internal changes that were real to them but imperceptible to observers. It makes sense that extraversion changes were picked up by both groups – it has been found to be the most observable trait. We were just surprised it was the only one.”

What’s the practical application for such findings? There are many – which is perhaps why almost as soon as the study hit the internet, local, national and international news organizations began to take notice.

“This research is relevant to people who drink alcohol, people who don’t drink alcohol and people who are interested in how alcohol affects people,” Winograd said. “But professionally, this work may be most relevant to clinical researchers and practitioners who study or work with people experiencing negative consequences from drinking.”

She added that while much more research – with different factors and contextual limits – needs to be done, the work could be particularly informative when it comes to further development of intervention strategies, including “motivational interviewing.”

“An intervention focusing on developing the discrepancies between how a drinker sees their ideal ‘drunken self,’ how they see themselves currently and how others see them can gently highlight how one’s intoxicated persona may be directly related to the negative alcohol-related consequences that individual experiences,” Winograd further explained. “It could provide significant motivation for change.”

Though Winograd says she has shifted focus since the study’s completion – including current work with the Missouri Department of Mental Health that aims to combat the opioid use and overdose crisis – she’s collaborating with research teams interested in expanding the findings.

“An interesting and ambitious next step would be to apply this framework to drunk personality as it’s displayed across different cultures and global populations,” she said. “Of course, we also would love to see these findings replicated outside of the lab. If observers were able to rate drunk personality at bars and parties where people could have been much more intoxicated and at different levels in their blood alcohol curve, we may have found very different results. This study sets a controlled groundwork for that type of future work and more.”

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Jami Hirsch

Jami Hirsch