Why Do People Go Nuts on New Year's Eve?

How to avoid rowdiness you might regret.

Party decoration with disco balls and fire sparkler
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True story. Last year, I went to a New Year's Eve party based on the following facts: It was being held at a very cool coffeehouse and geared toward an older crowd. By older, I mean not 20somethings, who I'd considered the rowdiest of revelers. And by coffeehouse, well, it seemed an unlikely site to teem with drunk crowds of 20somethings. In my mind, that combo created the possibility for a dignified New Year's celebration, one in which people weren't humping each other in plain view and vomiting. Hopefully, not at the same time. I know I sound like a New Year's Eve scrooge, but my definition of not fun definitely includes crowds of vomiting humpers.

Since this New Year's Eve would be different, I chose to embrace it. I pulled out the slinky, red dress from the back of my closet that had been unworn, tag still attached, for years. It was a hugely discounted impulse buy, made at Loehmann's, under the momentarily delusional idea that it would make the perfect dress for a romantic jaunt to Italy (Is there any other kind?) someday. I seriously imagined me and the dress and the man and the balcony, but, no, there has been no such Italy jaunting. So, when I spotted the forgotten but still hopeful dress, I shared the thought experienced by countless people before me and yet to come: What the heck? It's New Year's Eve!

Several hours later, I'm in the dress and the ever-growing bathroom line when the town crier in front announces that this might take awhile. I don't know who or what he knows, but I think: Oh crap. Someone's already sick or has IBS. It was worse. Moments later, one giddy couple emerges from one bathroom, and a second set exits the other. Incidentally, the second duo were a pair of senior citizens, her face flushed and hair tousled as they scurried out of sight, and because I have no filter, I exclaimed: "You have GOT to be kidding me!" And then, because I'm germophobic about these things, I left the line. I didn't drink that night to avoid having to negotiate some nasty, sticky bathroom. The party was just getting started. And it only got weirder.

And all of that got me thinking: What is it about New Year's Eve? What makes people, of all ages, get trashed and decide to fulfill that bucket-list wish to do it in a grimy, coffeehouse bathroom?

[Read Holiday Vices: How to Have Fun Without Overdoing It.]

New Year's Eve represents the rare, sanctioned occasion for excess. Our culture tell us to live it up on this night, to let go. And to some extent, that's OK.

"What sets humans apart from all other species is the extensive use of culture. But for culture to work, people have to follow rules, which means denying themselves things and blocking some of their impulses," says Roy Baumeister, professor of social psychology at Florida State University and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. "Willpower is limited. It's easier to tell yourself 'not now' than 'never.' And so having an occasional time of indulgence makes self-control easier. Throughout history and around the world, most cultures have had festivals at which the ordinary rules were temporarily suspended."

At the same time, indulgence can beget more indulgence, especially when it comes to alcohol and people don't realize how much they've imbibed, Baumeister says. In some cases, straying off course can mean a headlong dive into risky behavior.

"Everything in moderation, I always say," says J. Buzz Von Ornsteiner, psychologist and project director for the Mental Health Court Advocacy Program in New York. "Excess indicates that the individual has lost control and is powerless over what he or she craves ... However, many individuals tell me that they 'store up their stress and anxiety' and then on New Year's Eve use that bottled-up stress—as an excuse or rationalization to get drunk, take drugs, have multiple sexual contacts or overeat, since it's once a year and somewhat culturally accepted. In addition, in some circles, it's often encouraged."