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Malcolm Gladwell at UPenn: “Can you tell me how they drink”

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“The only way I could get into Penn was to get invited to talk,” said Malcolm Gladwell, after he bounded onto stage, with a trademark look that can be described as an intellectual Carrot Top. He announced that he would not be speaking about the topic of “Risk Fallacy” which was printed in the full-color, 70-lb paper stock souvenir program. Instead, he said, he was going to talk about something that occurred to him during the recent debate on health care. He was going to talk about Alcohol. He began talking about a chain of serendipitous events and a very remarkable couple, Dwight and Ann Heath.

In 1956, Dwight Heath was doing his doctorate in Anthropology at Yale, and his intention was to travel to Tibet for his doctoral research. A few months before he was supposed to go, the Chinese government cancelled his visa. With his academic work at stake and his wife Ann, having just given birth to a baby boy, Dwight, in a panic, searched for somewhere else that he could travel on very short notice. The next best choice, Dwight decided, was Bolivia.

Bolivia in the 1950s was very isolated. The year that Dwight, Ann, and their baby flew into Bolivia, there was a total of only 85 Westerners who entered. The Heaths ended up in Montera, a town on the edge of the rain forest, with dirt roads and adobe huts. Montera was populated by a tribe called the Camba, who were half-Indian and half-Spanish. The Camba spoke a weird 17th-century variant of Spanish. For the next year and a half, the Heaths lived in Montera and did what anthropologists do: talk to people whenever they could, took lots and lots of pictures, and smoked cigarettes ostentatiously to demonstrate that they were not missionaries.

When they returned to New Haven in the Fall of 1957, having been in a tropical country, they were very tan. An anomaly on campus in the New Haven winter. Ann loves architecture, and they happened upon an really cool building on Yale’s campus. They went in and they encountered two old men. One of the old men asked the Heaths why they were so tan and they replied that they had just returned from Bolivia.  To that, the old man asked, “Can you tell me how they drink?”. The man grabbed Dwight by the lapels and exclaimed, “I don’t know anyone who has ever been to Bolivia. You have to tell me how they drink!”.

The interesting building that Dwight and Ann ventured into was Yale’s Center for Alcohol Studies. The old man that grabbed Dwight by the lapel was Martin Keller, the editor of the Quarterly Journal of Alcohol Studies, then and now the most prestigious publication in the field. His companion, E.M. Jellinek, was famous for being the first to state that “alcoholism is not a moral failure, it is a disease”. The Center for Alcohol Studies was devoted to the questions of: how people drink, why do people drink, what are the social forces, what are the kinds of things we can do to combat alcoholism.

Dwight and Ann returned home and Ann was like, “You know, we went to parties every weekend.” And Dwight was like “Oh yeah!”. Anthropologists have codes for everything – drinking was 30A. They went through their extensive notes and found that they had 30A everywhere. In fact, they went drinking every weekend while in Bolivia. Alcohol was not really Dwight’s focus, but as a young, aspiring Ph.D. student and given the prestige of the Center, he wrote up how the Camba drink. After writing this famous paper on how the Camba drink, Dwight’s reputation ballooned, a flood of requests came in. He realized the importance of what he had found.

New Haven in the 1950s was a center of immigrants. Italian immigrants put Irish immigrants to shame in their drinking volume. One random Italian from the Center’s records consumed 3000 calories a day, with 1000 of those coming from wine consumption. In fact, every day, at lunch he consumed 24 oz. of wine. Yet, there was no evidence of social pathology or alcoholism with his drinking – he was employed, happily married, stable. Italian immigrants accounted for over 1/3 of the immigrant population, yet in the alcoholism cases admitted to Yale’s treatment center, only 40 out of 1200 were Italians. And these were 3rd and 4th generation.

Most regulations around the problem of alcohol are concerned with limiting the supply. Minimum drinking age – limit who can get served legally. Hours of operation for a bar establishment – limit when they can get alcohol. Taxes around alcohol – limit how much alcohol can one buy. But, in New Haven, with the Italian immigrants, the Center could find very little correspondence between supply of alcohol and problems with alcohol. Martin Keller said, “Drinking must precede alcoholism, but alcoholism does not necessarily follow drinking.”

In Bolivia, Dwight and Ann Heath went out drinking every weekend. They think they were invited to all the parties because they had a Coleman lantern – which no one else had – and that instantly vaulted them to the top of the Camba social hierarchy. Drinking was done in a very specific and ritualized way. There would be a couple dozen people. Everyone would sit in a circle. The bottle would be put in the center. The host would pour a drink and choose someone to make a toast to. The host would go over to that individual, toast him and drink half the glass. The host would pass the glass and the toasted individual would drink the other half. And continue the ritual. The ritual continued until everyone there was blind, stupid drunk. Sometimes an individual would pass out and leave the circle, and, once conscious again, rejoin the circle and the drinking. The parties would start Friday night and proceed until Monday morning, at which point, people would go to work.

It is important to note that despite drinking all weekend until they passed out, the Camba would never ever drink by themselves. They would never drink from Monday morning until Friday evening. In fact, the alcohol that the Camba drink was awful. Even the Camba themselves said it was awful. Being from New England WASP-ish type background, the Heaths only drank because they wanted to immerse themselves in the full cultural experience. Being good anthropologists, the Heaths had brought back a bottle of what the Camba drink and it was tested to be 180 proof. One of the Center’s scientists flat out didn’t believe that the Heaths actually drank that so Dwight Heath went down one Saturday and proved that, yes, it is possible for someone to down shots of 180-proof alcohol at 20-minute intervals and not die.

The Camba were drinking the strongest possible alcohol known to man, and to excess, every single weekend. As far as Dwight Heath can tell from his in-depth year and half living among and researching them, nothing happens. They didn’t get sexually aggressive, get into arguments, incite violence, had no illness. In fact, the Camba don’t even know or have a word for hangover. (Dwight and Ann did get hangovers). Contrast this to the drinking frenzy on a typical college campus where students are drinking beer, which is the equivalent of a pea shooter to the Camba’s 180-proof bazooka.

Before Dwight Heath’s paper, the common thought was that alcohol was reliable in its effects. Something that makes you drunk just as surely as caffeine in coffee perks you up. The belief was that alcohol makes you drunk; it disinhibits us – releases your inhibitions – that it is a drug that acts autonomously and reliably. The importance of Dwight’s paper is that anthropologists started to take their blinders off and looked at how people experience alcohol and started to see that alcohol doesn’t behave in a reliable, disinhibiting way at all.

In a book called Drunken Comportment (a book which describes drinking behavior worldwide and Gladwell calls the single most fascinating book he has read in the last 5 years), the anthropologists MacAndrew and Edgerton describe the Mix Indians of Oaxaca. Tribal members who get into an argument will actually pause to remove their machetes, calmly handing them off to bystanders, before beating the crap out of each other. At the end, the victor will hug his competitor and put his machete back on. When they are fighting, they are disinhibited in the manner of a dog who has cooped up all night and just been let out in the yard. When they are removing their weapons and the end of the fight, they are inhibited.

A common belief is that alcohol causes self-inflation and makes us look at stuff through rosier glasses. Claude Steele, an American psychologist, has given personality tests to participants when they are sober and then drunk. He has found that not everything gets looked at through rosier glasses. One thing that gets inflated: the distinction between real and ideal states. In areas where there is no distinction between what I think and the real state, there is no effect from alcohol. For example: If I think I am good looking and all of you think I am good looking, alcohol won’t have any effect. But if I think I am good looking and you think I am ugly – alcohol will make me think I look better.

Another common belief is that alcohol reduces anxiety. This would be consistent with disinhibition – that it takes all our troubles and fears away. However, in certain circumstances it reduces anxiety, in some it doesn’t. If you put a man who is very depressed and give him a six-pack and put him in front of a football game on TV, his anxieties will go away. But if you put the same man and give him a six-pack and put him alone in the corner of a bar, he will get more depressed.

Steele says that the disinhibition theory of drunkenness is all wrong. It’s not that the case that alcohol unlocks the things that are dead and buried. That what alcohol does is make the immediate things, factors in our environment, circumstance more and more prominent. That alcohol gives the things front and center disproportionate influence on the way we think and feel. This explains why if I think I am good looking and you all out there think I am ugly – I think I am better looking when I am drunk – because you are external – you are out there – you don’t matter – it’s what I think. For the depressed guy watching the football game – because the football game on the TV is front and central in his environment – he gets less depressed (unless he’s watching the Eagles – Gladwell quipped). For the depressed guy, alone in the bar with his six-pack – what is front and center – his fears. Drunkenness, Steele says – is not disinhibition – it’s myopia – a person who gets drunk is increasingly sensitive to the messages and signals in our world, to our environment.

So if alcohol doesn’t cause disinhibition (alcohol myopia theory) and crazed behavior by itself, what does? Gladwell posits: When there are clear standards and rules and structures around drinking, the drinker is more rule bound than his sober counterpart, not less rule-bound. Both the 1950s New Haven Italian immigrants and Camba Indians societies had understood that to consume alcohol in a way that not create all kinds of problems, you have to have a clear set of rules and expectations on how it is to be consumed.

Dwight Heath discovered there was a very strong structure behind the Camba drinking parties – during the week, the Camba have miserable jobs – they don’t really have a way to socialize during the week. At their drinking parties, it is really the only opportunity to be in a community – the toasts that they give each other are not trivial toasts, they are social glue. The Yale researchers went out into 1950s New Haven and gave diaries to the Italian immigrants to discover their drinking patterns. They discovered there is a strong community social structure behind the way Italian-Americans consume alcohol – sociability (never alone) and social routine and eating (never without food).

The 1950s Italian immigrant culture placed clear restrictions on when they could drink and how much they could drink. Today, in our modern world, our society is near incapable to put cultural limits on drinking (witness TV beer commercials – drinking without any discernible ‘structure’), to have a ‘conversation’ about how we drink. Long-held cultural practices about drinking from immigrants are being lost. Americans didn’t learn to drink like Italians; Italians learned to drink like Americans. If we are to lower the drinking age to 18 (as some university presidents want to do), we need to give a positive and constructive example of how to drink. Malcolm Gladwell concluded by saying that at the end of the day, the cultural component of drinking is much more important than the legal component (limiting supply/access to alcohol by minimum drinking age, taxes, hours of operation) and the medical component (genetic predispositions to alcoholism).

Dwight Heath

Center for Alcohol Studies

More information on the Bolivian Camba

The preceding was a distilled account of Malcolm Gladwell’s lecture taken from ridiculously near verbatim verbose notes. He lectured on January 28, 2010 at The 10th Annual Goldstone Forum, presented by the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program of the University of Pennsylvania. Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker, is the best-selling author of “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” and “Outliers: The Story of Success”. In the spirit of James Burke’s Connections, he is excellent at weaving a convincing argument from disparate, seemingly disconnected sources (often unknown academic research). However provocative, absorb his work with a touch of skepticism, as there is often more than a splash of psuedo science mixed in with his theses.