The Interweb loves nothing so much as posing provocative questions, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to hear that a new study asking the question “What type of drunk are you?” has gone viral.
When I first heard about it I assumed it was some mindless Facebook quiz. After taking a closer look, though, I realized two things: 1) the study had some hard science behind it; and 2) one of the authors of the study, Rachel Winograd, is a childhood friend of mine. So I called up Rachel, who’s now a PhD student in clinical psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, to find out more about these four classifications of “drunks” and what they might tell us about alcohol use disorders and recovery.
How the Study Went Down
Rachel and her fellow researchers studied 187 pairs (374 people) of predominately white college “drinking buddies” (both men and women). The researchers asked the pairs to rate their own and their buddy’s behavior when sober and also when intoxicated using five well-studied personality characteristics: openness (sometimes referred to as “intellect/imagination”), conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The researchers discovered it was possible to classify each of the participants in one of the four poetically named groups: the Hemingway, the Mary Poppins, the Nutty Professor and the Mr. Hyde.
So how did each person get slotted into a particular drunk-personality type? In the study personality changes in each participant were analyzed when the person was intoxicated as compared to when they were sober. It’s the change in personality traits, not the personality traits themselves, that was significant. For example, hypothetically speaking, Donald Trump might have minimal conscientiousness and tons of extroversion when he’s drunk, but if he behaves the same when he’s sober, he wouldn’t be in the Nutty Professor group; he would just be, well, nutty.
I asked Rachel to walk me through the four types of drunks in her research. Here’s what I learned:
The author of classic books like The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea was also known to drink like a fish. A severely alcoholic fish. And yet he boasted that “drink hells any amount of whiskey without getting drunk.” Study participants who fell into the Hemingway group reported the least amount of change in their behavior between when they were sober and when they were drunk compared to the other three groups, meaning they acted much the same, whether tee totaling or imbibing.* The largest percentage of people in the study fit best into the Hemingway group.
The Mary Poppins
Think of the folks in this group as your sweet Aunt Nancy. Agreeable when sober, even after a few cocktails she’s able to maintain that same pleasant nature and mostly remains just as conscientious and capable of ordinary conversation. She might, though, tell you a story that lasts just a little too long, or meanders onto some unrelated tangent. But she is friendly and inoffensive as she enjoys her glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. In Rachel’s study there were fewer Mary Poppinses than any other group.
The Nutty Professor
You know that normally quiet, even shy, friend who after a few beers is trying to convince everyone in the bar to go skinny-dipping? That’s the Nutty Professor. As the booze goes down, the Professor’s behavior shifts toward decreased conscientiousness (i.e., bad decisions) and increased extroversion (e.g., skinny-dipping). When sober, the NP is a rule-abiding fellow. After “Quarter Beers” night, though, he’s running down the beach in his birthday suit. There’s no marked change in his level of agreeableness, however, so he probably won’t get angry if you decide to keep your clothes on.
The Mr. Hyde
Study participants that fell into the second largest group, Mr. Hyde, exhibited a significant drop in agreeableness, conscientiousness and intellect when intoxicated. So it doesn’t come as a big surprise to hear that these are the people who reported the largest number of alcohol-related consequences, including memory blackouts and arrests because of drunken behavior. This is the (usually) law-abiding woman (my former drinking self included) who’s determined to drive home after a party, despite the protestations of her friends, and the (usually) mellow guy who, when drinking, turns into the Incredible Hulk when someone bumps his chair.
Does Your Personality Change When You Drink?
Before I got sober, I remember my mother telling me that my personality shifted when I drank. Shocked, I looked to my father in disbelief. He nodded his head. Though it’s obvious now, at the time I was genuinely floored. I thought I was keeping it together around my parents, if no one else. Realizing I didn’t have everyone fooled wasn’t what made me get sober, but it was a significant crack in my shield of denial.
If research like Rachel’s can help people become more self-aware it could have important implications for more people getting treatment. Many experts agree that it’s hard to start rehab or get some other kind of help when an addict doesn’t see or can’t admit that their use of a drug is having a negative impact on their life. Examining how a person changes when they’re engaging in addictive behavior might be a practical, non-judgmental start to a conversation about getting help. (Though it should be noted here that Rachel’s study didn’t specifically look at people with an alcohol use disorder or even those who suspected they had a drinking problem.)
Rachel told me she’s happy about the attention the study has received, but she’s quick to stress that it’s only a small part of the picture. “We looked at mostly white college students,” she said. “With a different demographic, we could get totally different [types] and that would be really informative.”
When I asked her if she thought that people were stuck in their drinking groups — once a Nutty Professor, always a Nutty Professor? — she was optimistic about the capacity for making a shift. “There’s a lot of research indicating that personality traits of an individual can change over longer periods of time,” she told me. “The same could certainly be true for a person’s ‘drunk type.’”
*The data used was self-reported or reported by the subject’s “drinking buddy.” It’s possible that a participant changed significantly, or differently than reported, after drinking but if neither of the buddies perceived that change, it wouldn’t have been in this self-reported data. This is, Rachel acknowledges, a limitation of this trial.
Photos: Hemingway: Wikipedia; “Mary Poppins”: Disney