Category: Alcohol

"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.

My drunkenness means you did it deliberately

With our brains gently soaked in alcohol we’re generally more sociable and relaxed – it’s a sedative after all. So why do drunk people seem so prone to aggravation and argument? One reason, say Laurent Bègue and colleagues, is that alcohol exacerbates the ‘intentionality bias‘, our natural tendency to assume that other people intended their actions. So when that guy jolts you at the bar and you’re drunk, you’re more likely to think he did it on purpose.

Bègue’s team recruited 92 men (aged 20 to 46) to take part in what they were told was a taste-testing study. They were given three glasses to taste, each containing a cocktail of grapefruit and grenadine cordial, mint and lemon concentrate. For half the participants, the drinks also contained alcohol – approximately the same amount found in five to six shots of vodka. To control for expectancy effects, half the participants with the alcoholic drinks and half the non-alcohol participants were told the drinks were alcoholic. Next, the participants spent 20 to 30 minutes on filler tasks, in keeping with the cover story that this was a taste-test study, and to allow the alcohol to kick-in. Finally and most importantly, the participants read 50 sentences about various actions (e.g. ‘He deleted the email’) and gave their verdict on whether the actions were intentional or not.

The intoxicated and sober men alike said that obviously intentionally actions (e.g. ‘she looked for her keys’) were intentional, and that blatantly unintentional actions (e.g. ‘she caught a cold’) were unintentional. But crucially, when it came to more ambiguous actions, like the email deletion example, the intoxicated men were significantly more likely (43 per cent) than the sober men (36 per cent) to say the action was intentional. Whether participants were told they’d had alcohol or not made no difference.

Why should alcohol have this effect? Bègue’s team think that it takes cognitive effort and control to overcome the intentionality bias, especially so as to take in all the information necessary to consider alternative explanations. Alcohol’s well-known disinhibitory and myopic (the ‘narrowing of attention’) effects would clearly undermine these faculties.

‘In summary,’ the researchers concluded, ‘alcohol magnifies the intentionality bias. Napoleon said, “There is no such thing as accident.” Our findings suggest that drunk people are more likely to believe Napoleon’s statement than are sober people.’

ResearchBlogging.orgBegue, L., Bushman, B., Giancola, P., Subra, B., and Rosset, E. (2010). “There Is No Such Thing as an Accident,” Especially When People Are Drunk. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (10), 1301-1304 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210383044

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

How good are we at estimating other people’s drunkenness?

Sloshed, trollied, hammered, plastered. We’ve done a sterling job of inventing words for the inebriated state, but when it comes to judging from their behaviour how much a person has drunk, we could do (a lot) better. That’s according to a review of the literature by US psychologist Steve Rubenzer.

We all have our trusted indices for judging other people’s drunkenness. Perhaps it’s when the eyeballs start floating about as if under the control of a clumsy puppeteer. Or maybe the effusive ‘you know I love you’ delivered with a trickle of dribble. However, the vast majority of studies find that lay people, police officers and bartenders are in fact hopeless at distinguishing a drunk person from a sober one, at least at moderate levels of intoxication. To take just one example, after watching drunk and sober people being interviewed and negotiating a stair case, bartenders rated them as slightly, moderately or very drunk with an accuracy of just 25 per cent.

It’s a similar story when participants are equipped with more structured means of detecting drunkenness. One 1958 study, for example, found no relation between doctors’ assessments of people’s intoxication (based on pulse rate, general appearance, gait and mental status) and the subsequent performance of those people on a driving course.

Rubenzer also looked at the evidence for specific indicators of intoxication. Alcohol causes reddening of the eyes, the literature shows, but the association between intoxication level and onset or amount of redness is unreliable. Another indicator is smell. The more a person has drunk, the more likely that their breath will be judged by observers to smell of alcohol. However, this indicator is hampered by the lack of a scientific explanation (alcohol has no odour), not to mention the risk of contamination by food smells. Speech slowing and slurring is another sign of intoxication but people are only modestly accurate at using this as a measure. Predictably enough, impaired walking, the last of the specific indicators, tends to increase the more a person has drunk but it only becomes reliable at very high intoxication levels.

The review finishes by looking at established ‘sobriety tests’: Nystagmus (jerky eye movements when following a moving target); the Romberg (whether a person sways or falls when they stand, eyes closed, with their feet together, arms at their sides); the Finger to Nose; the Finger to Finger; Saying the Alphabet; and the Hand Pat (alternating between clapping with the palms and backs of hands). In summary, performance on these tests does tend to decline as alcohol intake increases but the evidence for this at lower levels of intoxication is mixed and false positives (sober people categorised as drunk) are a frequent occurrence.

‘…[J]udging low to moderate levels of intoxication in strangers is a difficult task,’ Rubenzer concludes. ‘A variety of professions that might be expected to show substantial skill assessing intoxication do not. [And] no behavioural or physical sign has emerged that is consistently related to a specific level of blood alcohol concentration level without large variation among individuals, with the possible exception of nystagmus.’

ResearchBlogging.orgRubenzer, S. (2010). Judging intoxication. Behavioral Sciences & the Law DOI: 10.1002/bsl.935

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

What’s the link between left-handedness and drinking behaviour?

Back in the 70’s, psychologist Paul Bakan published a short research report in which he noted that among 47 inpatients on an alcoholism ward, 7 were left-handed – more than you’d expect based on the approximate 10-per cent prevalence of left-handedness in the general population. Bakan described his observation as ‘incidental’ but according to Kevin Denny, the idea of an alcoholism-handedness link has proven sticky, with some commentators suggesting the stress of being left-handed in a right-handed world is to blame.

Several studies through the years have attempted to replicate the left-handed-alcoholism link but most have relied on small samples and any way the results have been inconsistent. Denny’s contribution is an examination of data from the SHARE survey involving over 25,000 people from 12 countries. Left-handers aren’t more prone to risky drinking, Denny finds, but on average they do drink more often.

Denny made his finding after categorising survey participants based on their self-reports as either heavy drinkers (those who drink ‘almost everyday’ or ‘5 or 6 days a week’) or light drinkers (less than once a month or not at all for last six months). There was no evidence that handedness was related to excessive drinking, but left-handers were significantly less likely to be in the light drinker category than right-handers, suggesting that, on average, a left-hander is more likely than a right-hander to drink at moderate levels.

‘There is no evidence that handedness predicts risky drinking,’ Denny wrote. ‘Hence, the results do not support the idea that excess drinking may be a consequence either of atypical lateralisation of the brain or due to the social stresses that arise from left-handers being a minority group.’

Denny acknowledges his study has limitations – all participants in the SHARE survey are over 50, so it’s possible his findings don’t generalise to younger people. Related to this, it’s possible that some heavy-drinking left-handers died before the age of 50, although their numbers are likely to be small. Another potential shortcoming is that some participants categorised as non-drinkers may have been problem-drinkers in recovery.

ResearchBlogging.orgDenny, K. (2010). Handedness and drinking behaviour. British Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1348/135910710X515705

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

Why you really should avoid upsetting the big, drunk guy

There are some obvious practical reasons why you might want to avoid provoking the big, drunk guy in the bar. After all, he’s bigger than you. However, according to a new study, there’s another more psychological reason to be wary – heavier men are, on average, more likely to be aggressive when drunk than are lighter men. Nathan DeWall and colleagues say their finding is consistent with evolutionary theory and research on embodied cognition.

Over five hundred women (average weight 149 lb) and men (average weight 183 lb), aged 21 to 35, consumed either an alcoholic beverage or a placebo drink before taking part in a reaction time contest. The winner of each round had the opportunity to inflict an electric shock on their opponent. Their choices of how strong and long a shock to inflict was the measure of aggression. Unbeknown to the participants, their opponent was fictitious and the game was fixed so that they won fifty per cent of the rounds.

The key finding was that among the male participants only, alcohol interacted with body weight to predict aggression. That is, heavier men who had an alcoholic drink tended to be more aggressive than those who had an alcohol-free placebo drink. By contrast, having an alcoholic vs. placebo drink made little difference to the aggression of lighter men.

Another way of looking at the results was that, among men who had the alcoholic drink, those who were heavier tended to be more aggressive. For the female participants, their weight bore no relation to their aggressiveness. These same findings were replicated in a second study with a further 327 men and women.

It makes sense in terms of evolutionary theory that bigger men should be more prone to aggression, the researchers said, because ‘they’re more able than weaker men to inflict costs on others in conflict situations.’ The same isn’t true for women because even those who are larger will usually be smaller and weaker than potential male adversaries.

An association between weight and aggression is also predicted by embodied cognition, the researchers said. This is the idea that the way we think about abstract concepts is rooted in physical metaphors. One example is that we think about importance in terms of weight, thus leading heavier people to feel more important and entitled to special treatment.

Consistent with both these theoretical arguments, past research has indeed found that physical size is related to aggression. However, DeWall’s team said their new study is the first to show that weight is a predictor of alcohol-induced increases in aggression. ‘It seems that alcohol reduced the inhibition for heavy men to “throw their weight around” and intimidate others by behaving aggressively,’ they said.

DeWall, C., Bushman, B., Giancola, P., & Webster, G. (2010). The big, the bad, and the boozed-up: Weight moderates the effect of alcohol on aggression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (4), 619-623 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.02.008

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

"Never drink on an empty stomach" may not be such wise advice after all

Teenagers get a bad press these days. One complaint is that they’re forever lurking about getting drunk. Now Erling Moxnes and Lene Jensen have come up with a rather radical proposal based on the idea that teenagers often don’t mean to get as drunk as they do. According to the researchers, teenagers frequently over-inebriate because they fail to take account of the stomach delay – the fact that alcohol continues to enter the blood-stream long after a person stops drinking.

Moxnes and Jensen challenged fifty-five 16 and 17-year-olds to achieve a specific blood alcohol concentration level using a personalised computer simulation of the drinking process. The programme asked the teenagers to choose how many bottles of beer to consume each fifteen minutes, whilst giving them periodic feedback on their current blood alcohol level. The simulation had a built in stomach delay of either 22.5 minutes (fairly average for a typical person) or 4.5 minutes.

As the researchers expected, the teenagers massively over-shot the required blood alcohol level, especially when using the simulator with a longer stomach delay. Just as they likely do in real life, the teenagers merely used current feedback of blood alcohol level to inform their decision about how much more to drink. They completely failed to take into account that the blood alcohol level would continue to rise for some time without further intake.

So can youngsters be taught to take account of the stomach delay? A group of students given an advance explanation of the stomach delay performed no better than their peers. However, information about the delay plus the chance to see an advance simulation of the stomach delay (based on a drinking mouse!) did significantly improve the performance of another group, such that they over-shot far less when they completed the simulator challenge.

Moxnes and Jensen said their approach holds great promise – many of their teenage participants reported occasions when they’d gotten far more drunk than they intended, 98 per cent said they found the experiment interesting and 87 per cent said it would make a great teaching tool.

Another implication of these findings it that the folk advice to never go out drinking on an empty stomach may not be so wise after all. It’s sensible for people who intend to drink a fixed amount but not for people intending to drink until they reach a desired level of inebriation. “Here we show that it may not be sound advice for inexperienced juveniles that drink according to a simple feedback strategy,” the researchers said. “Drinking on a full stomach massively extends the stomach delay, thereby making it much harder to manage one’s blood alcohol level.”

ResearchBlogging.orgMoxnes E, & Jensen L (2009). Drunker than intended: misperceptions and information treatments. Drug and alcohol dependence, 105 (1-2), 63-70 PMID: 19625144

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

Would the jazz greats have been so great without drugs?

I think that trumpets and drugs have always gone hand in hand,” Mark Ronson speaking on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, December 07.

Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane – the list of jazz greats who battled drug and alcohol addiction goes on and on. Contemporary stars like Amy Winehouse seem to be following the same pattern. Now in a review of the psychological and biographical literature, Gerald Tolson and Michael Cuyjet have rejected the romantic notion that musical genius needs the succour of drugs in order to thrive.

A survey conducted in 1957 by Nat Hentoff of 409 New York City jazz musicians confirmed the extent of the problem: More than half had tried heroin, with 16 per cent being regular users. Over half used marijuana.

Tolson and Cuyjet said the jazz greats turned to drugs to release their creativity, to enhance the natural high of performing, and to cope with the strain of a disapproving society. The musicians of the 40’s and 60’s spent much of their lives in nightclubs where drug use was rife. They further had to contend with racism, often being required to arrive through the service entrance of clubs and were often forbidden from mingling with the patrons, many of whom were white.

As psychologist Charles Winick wrote in the 60’s “The substances they imbibed may have been instrumental in liberating these artists mentally from preoccupation with their life circumstances and subsequently, may have provided the opportunity for these artists to tap into their utmost level of creativity.”

Yet tragically, for many of the jazz stars, their addictions invited trouble with the law, and led ultimately to poor health and early death. Saxophonist Charlie Parker, for example, died age 34 and Billie Holiday age 44. “The untapped potential that was languished on drugs and alcohol by these artists shall never be fully revealed,” Tolson and Cuyjet wrote.

Indeed, book critic Jonathan Yardley, said reading Jazz Anecdotes led him to feel that “alcohol has been in jazz an instrument of distraction and debilitation masquerading as inspiration.”

In truth, the link between drug use and creativity has yet to be fully empirically tested, Tolson and Cuyjet concluded, but they said that whatever the creative benefits may have been, “the reality is that for most jazz artists, particularly during the creative period from 1940-1960, substance abuse did more harm than good, and rather than being the road to creative genius, it was the pathway to premature death.”

Tolson, G.H. & Cuyjet, M.J. (2007). Jazz and substance abuse: Road to creative genius or pathway to premature death. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 30, 530-538.

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

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.

Public health leaflets ignore findings from health psychology

Public health leaflets are failing to incorporate the lessons learned by health psychology research. That’s according to Charles Abraham and colleagues, who looked at the specific case of public health leaflets designed to encourage people to drink alcohol more sensibly – a burning issue in the UK where 23 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women are estimated to binge drink.

A key finding in psychology is that people are more likely to make the effort to change their behaviour if they believe they have the ability, the ‘self-efficacy’, to do so. And yet of 31 alcohol leaflets available in the UK, Abraham’s team found none encouraged readers that they have the ability to abstain or drink moderately. Similarly, only 7 per cent of British leaflets gave instructions on how to set oneself drinking-related goals – the kind of information that can bolster a person’s belief in their ability to change.

Other research shows that people’s behaviour is strongly influenced by anticipated regret, and yet only 7 per cent of UK leaflets warned readers that they were likely to regret drinking too much. Nearly all leaflets warned about the negative health consequences of drinking too much, but fewer than half the leaflets warned readers about the negative psychological consequences.

It was a similar story for leaflets available in the Netherlands and in Germany. The researchers concluded their findings had highlighted a communication gap “between, on the one hand, psychologists who apply predictive models to alcohol use and make recommendations concerning potentially effective persuasive communication and, on the other hand, health promoters who write educational leaflets designed to reduce alcohol intake.”

Alcohol leaflets could easily be re-written to incorporate 30 key theory-based messages, without becoming any longer than they are already, the researchers said.

Abraham, C., Southby, L., Quandte, S., Krahe, B. & Van Der Sluijs, W. (2007). What’s in a leaflet? Identifying research-based persuasive messages in European alcohol-education leaflets. Psychology and Health, 22, 31-60.

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

‘Blind’ drunk after one drink

If your attention is elsewhere you can miss something right in front of your eyes – a phenomenon that’s been dubbed ‘inattentional blindness’. For example, witnesses confronted by an armed attacker sometimes fail to remember anything else about the assailant apart from their weapon, so preoccupied were they by the knife or gun. Now Seema Clifasefi and colleagues report that just one stiff drink can exaggerate inattentional blindness, a finding they argue justifies the setting of a lower legal alcohol driving limit.

Forty-seven students watched a short video clip of two teams passing a basketball between their respective team members. The participants’ task was to count the number of passes made by one of the teams. During the clip, a woman in a gorilla suit runs between the players and beats her chest. Crucially, when asked afterwards, only 18 per cent of the students given a drink of vodka and tonic said they’d noticed the woman, compared with 46 per cent of the students given a drink of plain tonic water.

Alcohol clearly exaggerated the inattentional blindness that was also experienced by many of the sober students.

This wasn’t a placebo effect – half the students given plain tonic water were told they had been given vodka, and yet 42 per cent of them noticed the gorilla woman. By contrast, half the students given vodka were told they’d been given tonic water, and yet only 18 per cent of them noticed the gorilla. The alcohol seems to have had a direct effect on the participants’ cognition.

“Even at only half the legal driving limit in the US, our subjects were at significantly increased risk of failing to notice an unexpected object compared with their sober counterparts. In light of this result, perhaps lawmakers should reconsider the level of intoxication deemed legal to operate a vehicle”, the researchers concluded.

Clifasefi, S.L., Takarangi, M.K.T. & Bergman, J.S. (2006). Blink drunk: The effects of alcohol on inattentional blindness. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 697-704.

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

Did you know?
The creators of the video clip used in this study won an Ig Nobel prize for their efforts. Here’s the paper that originally used the gorilla video.