July 8, 2011 at 9:55 AM ET
As you clutch the commode, pressing your sweaty brow against that awesomely cool porcelain, you pause from your very proud moment -- and take a solemn vow.
Just two words. A simple affirmation, long uttered on ugly mornings after by rookie drinkers and veteran partiers alike -- as comedian Larry Miller so astutely detailed.
“Never … again.”
Ha! A few months, a few weeks -- maybe a few hours -- later, there you stand (sort of): cold one in hand, empties stacked, evil smirk, bleary eyes, and an unfortunate path of carnage in your wobbly wake.
Why do people abandon their sincere, gut-swirling pledges to not ever, ever, ever repeat their body-shot/beer-bong benders? You know, those magical evenings that tend to include a marriage proposal to “Destiny” on Stage 3. How can some folks recover from such self-induced misery only to chase the siren call of a certain syrupy spirit despite all they lost during their last dance with Jägermeister: a wallet, a tooth, their pants and pretty much the entire night?
'Urinating on myself? It’s not really that bad'
“Those negative things happen,” explains psychological researcher Diane Logan, “but what goes on in some peoples’ minds is: ‘I’ve learned my lesson; things will be better next time.’ Suddenly, they think: ‘Urinating on myself? It’s not really that bad -- and it’s already happened a couple of times.’ ”
This is not about alcoholism. This is about social drinkers who head back to the bottle after a brutal hangover, and maybe after a drunken brawl, a fresh mug shot (or fresh stitches) and an incoherent Facebook rant.
According to a new paper authored by Logan and psychologists at the University of Washington, people are enticed to overindulge -- yet again -- for two reasons. First, the previous wild night’s fun snippets (epic dancing, hysterical one-liners and, for some, sexual conquests) in retrospect seem, at least to them, way cooler than they really were. And, second, all those nasty things they felt, screamed, wrote, broke, soiled and later paid for? Well, those consequences weren’t truly all that nasty -- they rationalize -- and besides, lots of others have suffered similar embarrassing fates after tipping too many. (The paper was published online May 30 in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.)
Scientifically speaking, the ability to later overrate happy drinking times is called “positive memory bias.” Meanwhile, the mind’s capacity to convince itself that boozy blunders were simply out of character -- and will not become a pattern -- is known as “cognitive dissonance.”
Simply put, shots of liquid courage often seem to drown out any accompanying harm that comes with a binge, said the researchers, who asked 500 college students to complete online surveys gauging their drinking habits over the previous year while assessing how often they experienced any of 35 listed negative repercussions and any of 14 positive effects.
“Rose-colored beer goggles” -- that’s what Logan and her colleagues dubbed their theory.
“It’s kind where the brain is at battle with itself,” said Logan, lead author and a UW clinical psychology grad student. “So if I’m a good, upstanding person, those (bad behaviors) just don’t quite fit together. Either I have to change my view of myself or I have to change my view of the actual activity that occurred.”
Which leads, she said, to the rationalist’s credo: “It’s not me, it’s just a part of college, or it’s just a part of drinking.”
Are you there, Chelsea Handler? It’s us, The Body Odd.
Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of “The Third Miracle.”