Category: Alcohol

New findings explain why, if you’re sensitive to alcohol, you’re probably sensitive to sleep deprivation too

GettyImages-830297466.jpgBy guest blogger Julia Gottwald

The last time you and your class-mates or co-workers pulled an all-nighter before a deadline, you may have noticed: there are always those lucky individuals who seem to do just fine after a lack of sleep, while others feel drowsy and confused – almost like they had too much to drink. 

New research conducted at the German Aerospace Center suggests this could be because alcohol intoxication and sleep deprivation are more similar than we once thought.

In their study published recently in PNAS, Eva-Maria Elmenhorst and David Elmenhorst and their colleagues show how both affect us via a shared mechanism. And what’s more, if you’re sensitive to one, you’re likely to cope poorly with the other as well.

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Moderate alcohol consumption improves foreign language skills

By Emma Young

Alcohol is not exactly known for its brain-boosting properties. In fact, it impairs all kinds of cognitive functioning, including working memory and the ability to ignore distractions. So it really should make it harder for someone to speak in a foreign language.

However, as Fritz Renner of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and colleagues, point out in a new paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, “contrary to what would be expected based on theory, it is a widely held belief among bilingual speakers that alcohol consumption improves foreign language fluency, as is evident in anecdotal evidence from numerous discussions in social and popular media.” And in welcome news for holiday drinkers (not to mention language students) everywhere, it turns out that, at least at moderate levels, this belief seems to be right.

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Anxious about a speech? Alcohol may calm your nerves but will harm your performance


By Christian Jarrett

I confess, I’ve tried having an alcoholic drink before giving a public speech, telling myself that it will take the edge off my nerves. But I’m going to think twice before doing so again: a new study in Behaviour Research and Therapy carefully monitored the effects of moderate alcohol intake on the speech-giving performance of socially anxious and control participants and while the alcohol made the nervous folk feel more relaxed, it actually harmed their performance.

Continue reading “Anxious about a speech? Alcohol may calm your nerves but will harm your performance”

Academically successful children smoke more cannabis as teenagers: is it time to rethink drug education programmes?

You want a joint?By guest blogger Simon Oxenham

Academically successful children are more likely to drink alcohol and smoke cannabis in their teenage years than their less academic peers. That’s according to a study of over 6000 young people in England published recently in BMJ Open by researchers at UCL. While the results may sound surprising, they shouldn’t be. The finding is in fact consistent with earlier research that showed a relationship between higher childhood IQ and the use in adolescence of a wide range of illegal drugs.

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5 Studies That Help Explain Why Social Drinking Is So Rewarding

David Cameron And Chinese President Xi Jinping Visit Princes Risborough PubBy Christian Jarrett

For millennia, humans have enjoyed using alcohol as a social lubricant. The reasons seem obvious at first. Most of us have had a drink or two that’s put us at ease, helped us lose our inhibitions, lifted our mood. And yet, literally for decades through the last century, psychologists and other scientists struggled to find evidence for what they termed the “tension reduction theory” that proposed alcohol was rewarding because of its relaxing, mood-enhancing effects. In the lab, alcohol often had no effect or even made people feel worse.

A new review in Behaviour Research and Therapy helps make sense of this mismatch between real life and the lab. Too much of the early research presumed alcohol’s effects are straightforward, that if you give a dose of alcohol to a person sat alone in a psych lab, that its pharmacological effects will kick in and make them feel jollier and less anxious.

The reality, as Michael Sayette of the University of Pittsburgh explains in his review, is that alcohol’s rewarding effects interact in complex ways with our thoughts and emotions and the social situations we find ourselves in. To uncover why social drinking is so rewarding, researchers have had to develop more sophisticated, realistic experiments. Here I’ve pulled out five of the key insights from Sayette’s review that help explain why so many of us find alcohol the perfect companion when we’re socialising.

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A small alcoholic drink could benefit business negotiations, study finds

It is a tradition in many cultures, especially in East Asia, for business negotiations to be accompanied by drinking alcohol. Motivated in part to wonder why this might be, Pak Hung Au and Jipeng Zhang, at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in China, have tested the effects of a small cup of beer (350ml) on participants’ bargaining behaviour.

The study in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organisation involved 114 people playing a bargaining game in pairs, some of them after a cup of beer, others after non-alcoholic beer (a test of a placebo effect) and some after juice. Each round, each player was allocated a sum of money between $1 to $10 known only to them. Each round they and their partner then had to decide whether to participate with each other or not. If both parties agreed to join together then their initial endowments for that round would be summed and multiplied by 1.2 before being shared equally.

As a pair, these rules meant the participants gained more money the more that they collaborated. However, collaboration was not financially beneficial to individual participants on those rounds in which they had a large initial endowment but their collaborating partner had only a small endowment. Generally what happened is that players opted to collaborate on rounds in which they started out with a small endowment, but chose not to when they had a larger amount. Part of the game involved deducing from any collaboration payouts and other clues how conservatively and individualistically their partner was playing, and responding as they felt appropriate.

In short, the researchers found that more collaboration occurred when both participants in a pair had had a drink of beer compared with juice (those who drank beer had an average blood alcohol concentration level of 0.0406; for reference, outside of Scotland, the UK drink drive limit is 0.08 or 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood). There was little evidence of a placebo effect, and other financial games and measures used in the study suggested the effects on collaboration were not due to any changes in risk aversion, mood or altruism. Instead, the researchers’ analysis suggested that alcohol affected the way that players made inferences about their partner’s negotiating stance based on their collaboration decisions and other clues. “In settings in which skepticism can lead to a breakdown in negotiation, alcohol consumption can make people drop their guard for each others’ actions, thus facilitating reaching an agreement,” they explained.

The researchers warned that of course excessive alcohol consumption is associated with many health risks, and that the consumption of larger amounts of alcohol would inevitable harm business negotiations through its affects on mental performance and aggression. But they said their results do suggest that “consuming a mild to moderate amount of alcoholic drink in business meetings can potentially help smooth the negotiation process”.

Deal or no deal? The effect of alcohol drinking on bargaining

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

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There are four kinds of drunken personality (among students, at least)

New, preliminary evidence suggests that undergrad drinkers fall into four different, colourful types, each with a particular shift in personality when under the influence. The findings could increase our understanding of why some students behave in harmful ways when drunk while others usually don’t.

Rachel Winograd and colleagues at the University of Missouri-Columbia asked 374 student participants to complete a personality test twice, once considering themselves as they normally are, the other time how they behave and feel when drunk. The researchers conducted a cluster analysis on the dataset to find four types of student drinker:

  • Those for whom drinking had less effect on their intellect and conscientiousness than is typical, dubbed Hemingways in tribute to the writer’s reputed imperviousness to alcohol
  • Those who are introverted when sober but highly extraverted and unconscientious when drunk, who experienced the greatest overall personality shift thanks to alcohol, and are named Nutty Professors after the Jerry Lewis character
  • Those who are very pleasant and harmonious (high agreeableness) when sober, and when drunk retain most of their agreeableness, conscientiousness and intellect; in all, they experience the slightest alcohol related change: the Mary Poppinses
  • Finally, those dubbed Mr Hydes due to their larger decreases in agreeableness, conscientiousness, and intellect when drunk

This last group is of particular interest. Although none of the types were linked to greater units consumed per drinking session, nor with binge drinking, the Mr Hydes were significantly more likely to experience negative alcohol-related consequences, including poorer grades, regrettable sex, or cravings for drink in the morning; this effect was in comparison to the Mary Poppinses, with the other groups falling intermediate. It’s also worth noting the Mr Hyde group had the highest proportion of women (two thirds, with the sample being overall 57 per cent women).

A few limitations to note. Firstly, each participant was also rated by a buddy in the sample, but analysis of their judgments didn’t suggest any clear typology in the way that the self-ratings did. The authors suggest that the shifts they are looking for may be subtle and internal, and overlooked by outsiders looking for stereotypical drunk behaviours, which I find plausible; even so, convergent evidence would have been preferable. The study looked at sober perceptions of drunkenness, so further work using observation of alcohol use in the lab or even the pub would be welcome. And of course, undergrad drinkers are not all drinkers, and older, alcohol-dependent home drinkers may fall into very different dynamics.

Previous research had suggested that alcohol-related personality change is a predictor of alcohol problems, but this research develops this understanding by attributing it to a type of change, rather than simply the quantity of change (as the radical shift of the Nutty Professors was not associated with greater harm). As such, it suggests possible risk factors that can help individuals understand why they are the ones suffering, when all they are doing is drinking like their crew do.


Winograd, R., Steinley, D., & Sher, K. (2015). Searching for Mr. Hyde: A five-factor approach to characterizing “types of drunks” Addiction Research & Theory, 1-8 DOI: 10.3109/16066359.2015.1029920

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

References to alcohol in UK pop music are on the increase

“My wine is good to me, it helps me pass the time. And my good old buddy whiskey keeps me warmer than the sunshine,” Aloe Blacc – I need a dollar, 2011.

Psychologists have documented a striking increase in references to alcohol and heavy drinking in the lyrics of UK chart music. They warn this could mean that attempts to control the direct advertising of alcohol to young people will be in vain, as pop music is effectively spreading a positive message on the drinks companies’ behalf.

Katherine Hardcastle and her colleagues analysed all songs (611 in total) that reached a top 10 UK chart position in the years 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011. The proportion of songs that referenced alcohol in their lyrics was 5.8, 2.1, 8.1 and 18.5 per cent, respectively across these years.

The researchers also looked to see whether the references to alcohol and drinking carried negative, neutral or positive connotations. References were mixed in 1981; all positive in ’91 (though this was the year with the lowest number of alcohol references); more negative and neutral than positive in 2001; while in 2011, the positive and neutral references (22 songs) far outnumbered the negative references (4).

From Hardcastle et al. 2015

Why are alcohol references on the increase in the British pop charts? Hardcastle and her co-authors think it has to do with the influence of US acts. Alcohol references are even more prevalent in the USA chart (23.7 per cent of songs in 2008) and songs by US acts in the UK chart contained more alcohol references than songs by British acts. References to booze and drinking were highest in Urban music (R&B, hip-hop and rap) – a genre largely originating in the US. “Today’s urban music scene is dominated by US artists such as Jay-Z and Alicia Keys,” the researcher said, “with many artists from the UK music scene attempting to emulate the sounds and styles of their American counterparts.”

This study cannot answer the question of whether mentions of alcohol (especially positive ones) in pop music encourages more alcohol abuse among young listeners. However, the researchers argue there is reason to think it might. They point to the influence of non-conscious priming (ideas can influence our behaviour without us realising it) and past research showing that people drink more when in a bar that’s playing music with alcohol-related lyrics. Moreover, teenagers’ beliefs about what’s “normal” drinking behaviour will likely be influenced by what they hear from the singers they admire.

“A greater understanding of the impacts of alcohol-related popular music is urgently needed,” the researchers concluded.


Hardcastle, K., Hughes, K., Sharples, O., & Bellis, M. (2015). Trends in alcohol portrayal in popular music: A longitudinal analysis of the UK charts Psychology of Music, 43 (3), 321-332 DOI: 10.1177/0305735613500701

further reading
Pop music is getting sadder

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

When do bystanders intervene in barroom brawls?

The hero in martial arts movies usually steps in when a passive victim is picked on by a gang of thugs. However a new study finds that in real life, third parties are most likely to intervene in conflict situations when the incident involves mutual aggression between drunk men.

Michael Parks and his colleagues trained dozens of observers who analysed 860 aggressive incidents across 503 nights in 87 large clubs and bars in Toronto, Canada. Aggression was defined as anything from a verbal insult or unwanted physical contact to a punch or kick. Incidents were twice as likely to involve one-sided aggression as opposed to mutual aggression. The most common incident involved a man making persistent unwanted overtures or physical contact towards a female. Male on male aggression was the next most frequent category. All-female aggression was rare.

Third parties intervened in almost one third of these situations, and they were more than twice as likely to intervene in a non-aggressive way than to be aggressive themselves. Eighty per cent of third parties who got involved were men. Drunk third parties were more likely to be aggressive. Surprisingly perhaps, the most frequent kind of aggressive incident (male on female) was the least likely to provoke third party involvement. One-sided aggression between men also provoked few interventions. Parks and his team think this is probably because such incidents are judged to be non-serious and unlikely to escalate.

This was borne out by data for how the situations unfolded. Serious physical harm and intense aggression rarely arose from one-sided aggression of any kind, including male on female. Serious harm and escalation most often arose out of mutual aggression between men – the situation that provoked the highest rate of third-party involvement, all the more so if the men involved were intoxicated.

Taken together, Parks and his team believe their data show that third parties decide to intervene based on their assessment of the dangerousness of the situation. This fits with social psychology research showing that bystanders intervene more often in emergency situations that they perceive to be more dangerous. An alternative or parallel explanation is that third parties were influenced to intervene based on cultural rules around honour and saving face.

Parks and his team said their results could have practical applications. “Staff training can include awareness of the kinds of situations most likely to elicit aggressive third parties and how to work as a team to prevent their involvement,” they said. “Staff could also be trained to harness the good intentions of non-aggressive third parties.”

The great strength of this research was that it was based on real-life observations. A downside, acknowledged by the researchers, is that we don’t have any direct evidence for the motives of the people who intervened.


Parks MJ, Osgood DW, Felson RB, Wells S, and Graham K (2013). Third party involvement in barroom conflicts. Aggressive behavior, 39 (4), 257-68 PMID: 23494773

–Further reading–
Who gets aggressive at the late-night bar and why?
Bystander research from the Digest archive.

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

"Beauty in the eyes of the beer holder" – people who think they’re drunk, think they’re hot

The beer-goggle effect is well-documented – the way that being drunk makes everyone look wonderfully attractive. A new study asks whether the goggles work backwards. Does being drunk affect how we judge our own appeal?

Laurent Bègue and her team asked 19 patrons at a French bar to rate their own attractiveness and to puff into a breathalyser. The two measures correlated – the participants who were more drunk tended to rate themselves as more attractive. But maybe that was nothing to do with the effect of alcohol. Perhaps better-looking people like getting more drunk?

To find out, Bègue and her colleagues conducted a balanced placebo test with 86 Frenchmen. Half drank the equivalent of five to six shots of vodka, and in this group, half were told truthfully the minty lemon drink was alcoholic, whilst the other half were told it was a new, non-alcoholic beverage that tasted like alcohol. The remaining men drank an alcohol-free version of the minty, lemon drink – half of them were told it was alcoholic (alcohol was sprayed on the glass to make this more believable) and half were told truthfully that it was not. After a short break to allow the alcohol to work its effects, they all recorded an advertising message for the fictional beverage company that they’d been told had produced the drink. Right after, they then watched back the film they’d made and rated their own attractiveness.

The take-home finding – participants who thought they were drunk rated themselves as more attractive than did other participants, regardless of whether they’d really had any alcohol or not. In other words, it’s not the chemical content of alcohol that makes us think we’re more attractive, it’s merely the belief that we’re drunk that inflates our self-perceived appeal (up to a point – in fact the average self-judged attractiveness rating for the group who though they’d had alcohol still wasn’t that high).

Maybe people who thought they were drunk really were more attractive than those who thought they were sober? A panel of 22 university students also watched the videos and rated the attractiveness of the men. There was no evidence in their ratings to suggest the participants who thought they were drunk were more attractive, so the inflated self-perceived appeal of these men was illusory.

Why should thinking we’re drunk have this effect? The researchers believe it must have to do with implicit beliefs people hold about alcohol. If people associate alcohol and attractiveness in their minds, then thinking they’ve had alcohol could make thoughts about their own attractiveness more accessible. This would fit with past research showing that drinkers in films are usually portrayed as more attractive than non-drinkers.

Coincidentally, another study has just been published that asked a group of 100 young men to answer questions about how they think a typical young man’s personality is affected by being drunk. They then said how they thought being drunk affected their own personality. There was a lot of agreement about the effect of being drunk on a typical young man – reduced conscientiousness, increased neuroticism, elevated extraversion, reduced openness and reduced agreeableness. When the young men then said how alcohol changed their own personalities, they again highlighted reduced conscientiousness, increased neuroticism and extraversion, but they thought their own agreeableness was unchanged and that they were actually more open to experience when intoxicated.

So, not only do people who think they’re drunk find themselves more attractive, people (well, young men) also think that, whereas you are less agreeable when you’re drunk, their own personality when drunk remains as likeable and friendly as ever!

Laurent Bègue, Brad J. Bushman, Oulmann Zerhouni, Baptiste Subra, and Medhi Ourabah (2012). ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder’: People who think they are drunk also think they are attractive. British Journal of Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.2012.02114.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.