Alcohol Myopia Theory: How Drinking Narrows Your Perspective

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is alcohol myopia theory? Why do you tend to get really focused on, even obsessed with, one thing when you’re drunk? What are the negative consequences of alcohol myopia?

Alcohol myopia is a state in which the drinker’s mental and emotional field of vision becomes narrow. This can cause the drinker to fail to take in the context of a situation and to make short-sighted decisions.

We’ll cover what alcohol myopia theory says about what alcohol does to our decision-making abilities and look at the problems with alcohol myopia.

Alcohol Myopia 

Alcohol induces myopia, a state in which the drinker’s mental and emotional field of vision becomes narrow. In other words, the drinker becomes short-sighted and his behavior and emotions are strongly affected by his immediate experience. This is the alcohol myopia theory.

Alcohol myopia is a result of alcohol’s effects on the brain:

  • Alcohol reduces activity in the frontal lobe, which governs attention, motivation, and learning. Essentially, it makes the drinker dumber and less capable. 
  • Alcohol triggers the brain’s reward centers and increases feelings of euphoria. 
  • Alcohol enters the amygdala and makes the drinker less likely to feel threatened or afraid. 
  • Alcohol makes its way to the cerebellum, which governs coordination and balance. That is why drunk people often stagger and stumble. 

The most crucial implication of alcohol myopia is that the drinker’s understanding of self changes. A person normally constructs his personality and character by managing the struggle between immediate experience and long-term consequences—that’s ethical decision making. But a drunk person no longer considers those long term consequences because the immediate experience takes sole focus. His normal character is broken down by alcohol myopia. Alcohol doesn’t disinhibit a person—it totally transforms a person. 

Example of Alcohol Myopia

People who think of alcohol as a disinhibitor might drink in an effort to forget all their troubles. And that might work (for a time) as long as the drinker is in a fun environment, like a football game with tons of excited fans. The alcohol myopia will make the football game (the immediate experience) the only thing in his field of vision. And his problems become crowded out.

However, if the drinker is in a quiet, solitary environment his problems will become even more overwhelming. He will become more depressed because there is nothing in his immediate experience to replace his painful emotions and thoughts. 

Alcohol makes it much more difficult to express yourself and to understand others, and young people are often drunk during these sexual encounters: Alcohol puts the drinker into a transformative state of alcohol myopia in which only the short-term seems important and longer-term consequences are easy to ignore. Even more problematic, many young people drink to a state of “blackout.” (Myopia and blackout are discussed more fully below). 

According to the alcohol myopia theory, the misunderstanding of consent is essentially an assumption of transparency gone wrong, and alcohol only adds to the confusion. Consent is something that two people must negotiate together, and it requires both people to be who they say they are and want what they say they want. When under the influence of alcohol, neither person is their true self and neither person can manage their short-term wants with the long-term consequences. (Shortform note: Gladwell doesn’t address situations in which rape happens with true lack of consent, rather than when alcohol is involved.)

Alcohol Myopia Theory: How Drinking Narrows Your Perspective

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  • Why we don't understand strangers
  • How to talk to strangers in a cautious way so you don't get fooled
  • How Hitler deceived so many world leaders

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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