When people act differently under the influence, it could be a sign of an alcohol problem.

OLGA KHAZAN is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Mean Drunks

Europe may have inspired Ernest Hemingway’s writing, but it also fueled his early love of exotic boozes. While recovering from injuries he sustained on the Italian front, he bribed hospital nurses and porters for cognac, Cinzano, Marsala, and Chianti.

Eventually, he claimed to be able to ‘‘drink hells any amount of whiskey without getting drunk.”

We can’t all hold our liquor like Papa. In fact, one of the main delights—and pitfalls—of drinking is that it allows people to cast off the shackles of normal human behavior. But some people, as anyone who has been to an overlong wedding reception can attest, change more than others when they’re tanked.

For a study recently published in Addiction Research & Theory, researchers questioned 187 pairs of “drinking buddies”—undergrads who frequently drank together and knew what their friend was like when intoxicated. Participants were asked how much they drank and how often, as well as whether they ever experienced any negative consequences from drinking, such as lower grades, regrettable sex, or craving a drink first thing in the morning. They were also asked to describe what they’re like when they are drunk by using the “big five” personality traits, which are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Their buddies then corroborated (or contradicted) these personality assessments.

The researchers grouped the respondents into four clusters, which they named with delightful pop-culture references:

1) The Hemingway:


Based on the novelist’s storied imperviousness to alcohol, this category included individuals who behave roughly the same drunk as they do sober—at least when it comes to temperament. When sober, they are roughly average across the five personality metrics. When drunk, their levels of intellect and conscientiousness (or self-discipline) change less than they do for other people.

2) Mary Poppins:


These people are very agreeable when sober, and they stay very agreeable when drunk. Their levels of conscientiousness and intellect also decrease little.

3) The Nutty Professor:


These people become far less conscientious after a few drinks. Most notably, they are introverted when sober, but the life of the party when drunk. (The researchers didn’t measure whether they play all the other characters at said party, though).

4) Mr. Hyde


Named for the sinister alter-ego of Dr. Jekyll, these people reported big decreases in conscientiousness, intellect, and agreeableness when they are intoxicated. They “reported a tendency of being particularly less responsible, less intellectual, and more hostile when under the influence of alcohol than they are when they are sober, as well as relative to members of the other groups.”

There was no correlation between the clusters and the frequency or amount of drinking. But the researchers did notice something surprising when they looked at the consequences the drinkers reported.

Members of the Mr. Hyde cluster experienced the most problems related to their drinking habits, followed by the Hemingways. Interestingly, the Mr. Hyde group had the most women in it.

The rigor of these categories leaves something to be desired—they were somewhat arbitrarily constructed based on the recalled observations of a relatively small number of college students. And the clusters obviously don’t capture all the possible permutations of drunk behavior. (Let’s hear it for the sleepy drunks who effusively make impossible-to-keep brunch plans.)

But it’s significant that the people who change the most and are the least fun to be around when drunk are also the most likely to have alcohol-related issues, like blackouts or fights. That suggests “drunk personalities” could be clues to the trajectory and nature of drinking problems.

Alcoholism is notoriously hard to pin down. If you drink a little every day, is that a problem? What about nothing all week, but 10 beers on Saturday? The study authors hope that assessments of “drunk personalities,” more than being a novelty, could eventually be used by clinicians to help problem drinkers get to the root of their troubles:

Essentially, the assessment of clients’ unique ‘drunk personality profiles’ could provide a personalized link between their drinking episodes and the problems that result from them, and open the door for a tailored discussion about how their drinking, personality expression, and drunken behaviors are intertwined.

More studies need to be performed before that can happen, but this one is a start. At the very least, if someone excuses bad drunken behavior with a simple “I’m a mean drunk,” these findings could be a form of validation—and a cause for reflection.