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Lowered Inhibitions and the License to Misbehave

Chapter 19: The Freedom Model

You're out at a bar with friends having a few drinks, watching your favorite team on the big screen. You see a guy at the bar that's clearly had a few too many turn to the guy next to him and start shouting obscenities. The second guy jumps off the bar stool and takes a swing at him and a fight breaks out but is quickly subdued by two other patrons and a rather burly bouncer who escorts the two men outside. Immediately a young woman comes running from the other side of the bar pleading with the bouncer to go easy on one of the men. She cries, "Don't hurt him, he's just drunk. I will take him home."

There is a widespread belief in our culture that substances lower inhibitions, obliterating some mental barrier so that people become more open and honest about what they think, who they are and how they feel; in other words, when under the influence they show their true selves. Most people attribute the effects of alcohol and other substances to making them more sociable and outgoing, more forward and daring romantically or sexually, and to making them act more aggressively and offensively. It is as if people repress what they believe are their less socially acceptable moods and behaviors until they use drugs or alcohol. The belief is that substances have a pharmacological key that unlocks all of this behavior.

Although it's true that many people feel empowered to behave differently when they use substances (e.g. alcohol as "liquid courage"), the claim that substances pharmacologically lower inhibitions is untrue and represents an illusion. The "drug, set, and setting," understanding that was discussed in Chapter 17 explains this phenomenon perfectly. We used the comparison earlier in The Freedom Model between drinking at a wake versus drinking in a bar to demonstrate this general principle. However, the primary set and setting operative in creating these effects is so broad and subtle within our culture that it's almost invisible. We've literally been immersed in it our entire lives. As such, it's virtually impossible to step outside of it to see its influence. Luckily, mountains of data have been gathered by social scientists all around the world to demonstrate the fact that substances don't truly lower inhibitions. We'll be referring to this and other data throughout the chapter to question this class of substance effects; in so doing we'll replace the belief in pharmacologically lowered inhibitions with the more accurate concept of a socially/culturally granted "license to misbehave" while intoxicated.

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