Alcohol as a social technology to check the trustworthiness of others

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Ohhh, never thought of this hypothesis: that the act of getting drunk together might be a social technology that helps us verify the trustworthiness of others by inhibiting their higher cognitive functions and thus making it harder to consciously fake things. That would make sense.

> To enhance our natural thin-slicing abilities, humans have therefore also developed various cultural practices that make these instant assessments more reliable. These techniques take advantage of the fact that deception is fundamentally a cold-cognition act and relies on cognitive control centers. This means that if we can impair the cognitive control abilities of people we're trying to judge, we’ll do a better job of sussing them out: they will be less able to confuse our cheater-detection systems.

> In one study that has proven enormously useful to law enforcement agencies, researchers found that police officers could significantly improve their ability to detect false statements if suspects were asked to give their alibis in reverse order, starting with the most recent event and working their way back. This is not the way we normally tell stories, so being forced to do it increases cognitive load. Dishonest suspects, it turns out, are less effective liars if you handicap their conscious minds in this way.

> This reverse-order alibi technique is a great tool for law enforcement but not terribly practical when evaluating a potential business partner or deciding if the people you’re about to make a peace treaty with are being sincere. There are other ways to achieve the same effect, though. The police study aimed to reduce subjects’ cognitive control ability by increasing the load-adding more weight, as it were. Alternately, you can keep the load constant but decrease cognitive control ability-weaken the mental muscles-by suppressing cognitive control centers. One way to do this is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which involves applying a powerful magnetic force to the appropriate region of the skull. TMS, however, is a very recent technology and not exactly widely available. Also, in most cultures it’s considered bad form to shock the heads of new acquaintances with huge magnets.

> A much more low-tech and socially acceptable way to produce the same effect is to get someone completely wasted. As we discussed in chapter 6, one of the primary effects of alcohol and other intoxicants is to "downregulate," or temporarily paralyze, areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with cognitive control. A couple shots of tequila is the liquid equivalent of a nice jolt of TMS. It’s therefore no accident that intoxicants of various sorts are frequently employed by human beings as social lubricants. Alcohol, kava, cannabis, magic mushrooms, you name it: any intoxicant that people can get their hands on quickly comes to play a central role in social occasions, both formal and informal. In ancient China, no major treaty was signed without first bringing everyone together in an extended, alcohol-soaked banquet. In fact, this is one feature of Chinese culture that has not changed a bit in over four thousand years. Any modern businessperson hoping to ink a deal with Chinese partners had better get his or her liver in shape first.

> On a less formal level, this is no doubt why intoxicants are a universal feature of all sorts of human social gatherings, from casual cocktail parties to fraternity mixers. Not only is getting drunk pleasant, it also typically causes people to get along more freely and easily (at least to a certain point, after which the drunken fights break out). Intoxication enhances cooperation in at least two ways. First of all, it reduces social faking by inhibiting cognitive control centers. Second, if we all get drunk together, we create a situation of mutual vulnerability that makes trust easier to establish. Getting drunk is essentially an act of mental disarmament. In the same way that shaking right hands with someone assures them that you’re not holding a weapon, downing a few tequila shots is like checking your prefrontal cortex at the door. See? No cognitive control. You can trust me.

Excerpt From: Slingerland, Edward. "Trying Not to Try." Crown Publishing Group, 2014-03-04.