Monday, February 23, 2009

Cultural Differences in Alcohol Use

I've just read David Mandelbaum's classic "Alcohol and Culture" paper where he discusses the attitudes and practices towards alcohol throughout modern and historical societies. Everywhere that alcohol has been present the culture has taken a stance on it; thus Mandelbaum notes that although "it is sometimes tabooed, it is never ignored." Here are some of the other cultural nuggets:
  • Similarities across cultures: it is more acceptable for men to be drunk than women, it is generally done with peers of the same age, warriors and shamans can more acceptably drink alcohol than judges or priests, and it is discouraged when large amount of people are present in the area.
  • In ancient Aztec society worshipers had to get drunk, otherwise they believed that the gods would be displeased.
  • Cultural (and perhaps genetic) differences modulate the behavior we exhibit while drunk: In Japan drinking leads to displays of affection, while in Papago Indians it leads to hostility.
  • The code of Hammaburi specified the price, quality, and credit terms for beer, apparently functioning taverns were an important staple for a complex society even in 1720 B.C.
Status quo bias is basically the only thing that separates alcohol from THC or maybe even MDMA, yet the legal and cultural attitudes towards the drugs are so different. It is probably due to history: alcohol has been a part of human societies for so much longer.