Is behavioral tolerance learned?

Alcohol Health Res World. 1997;21(2):161-8.


Both scientific and anecdotal evidence indicates that social drinkers can develop resistance (i.e., behavioral tolerance) to alcohol's impairing effects over time. Although repeated exposure to alcohol is thought to explain tolerance development on a physiological level, the acquisition of behavioral tolerance appears to involve additional factors. In particular, learned associations between a drinker's behavior following alcohol consumption and the subsequent consequences may play an important role. When favorable consequences result from displaying unimpaired (i.e., tolerant) behavior after drinking, a drinker learns to develop behavioral strategies to compensate for alcohol's effects. In contrast, if a drinker does not receive a reward for unimpaired behavior--or finds that a more favorable outcome follows the display of intoxicated behavior--tolerance does not develop. Studies show that subjects also can develop behavioral tolerance to alcohol when they practice a task while impaired by factors other than alcohol or when they mentally rehearse task performance while under the influence of alcohol.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / metabolism
  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology*
  • Feedback, Psychological / physiology
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology