The mere sight of alcohol impairs drinkers’ memories

For students who like a tipple or three, the mere sight of a bottle of Jack Daniels can have a detrimental effect on their memory. Dennis Kramer and Stephen Schmidt, who made the observation, said this is probably due to the emotional salience alcohol has for those who drink a lot.

One hundred and twenty students performed a task reminiscent of the Generation Game, which involved them observing pictures of 15 everyday objects, such as a hammer or a banana, and then attempting to recall them 5 minutes later. After the memory task, the students were split into high and low drinkers based on their average number of drinks per month.

For some of the students, the eighth item in the memory test was a bottle of Jack Daniels, while others saw a bottle of Pepsi Cola in its place. It turns out that among the high drinkers only, memory performance was significantly affected by the the nature of this eighth item.

Firstly, the high drinkers, but not the low drinkers, were more likely to recall the Jack Daniels than the Pepsi Cola. Moreover, the high drinkers who saw whiskey in the eighth position, were far less likely to recall the next three items in the memory test, than were the high drinkers who were shown Cola. This memory-impairing effect of whiskey was not observed among the low drinkers.

The researchers said this is consistent with the idea that alcohol had acquired an emotional salience to the high drinkers, leading to an attention-narrowing effect that impaired their encoding of the items that followed the picture of whiskey. A similar effect was observed in an earlier study when a nude picture was inserted among a series of to-be-remembered items.

The researchers concluded that a test like the one used in this study might be helpful in measuring how effective alcohol interventions have been at changing people’s feelings towards drink.

Kramer, D.A. & Schmidt, S.R. (2007). Alcohol beverage cues impair memory in high social drinkers, 21, 1535-1545. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 1535-1545.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

One thought on “The mere sight of alcohol impairs drinkers’ memories”

  1. The Jack Daniels picture did not “impair” memories, rather it <>focused<> the drinkers’ attention on a picture of interest (and away from the other pictures). Thus, the title of the study is misleading.It is notable that the earlier study cited in this post was entitled, “The positive and negative effects of nudes on memory.” Perhaps it was Kramer & Schmidt’s strong emotional connection between alcohol and the idea of memory impairment that led them to conclude the sight of alcohol impaired the drinkers’ memory rather than focused it.

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