September 22, 2023 — We humans have a mixed relationship with alcohol. On the one hand, it helps us relax after a stressful day and feel more at ease in social situations. But excessive use can affect your health, increasing the risk of unsafe behavior, injury, violence and illness.
Now researchers say reducing those negative effects starts with better understanding alcohol’s appeal. Consider a recent study on the effects of alcohol on men’s sexual drives.
A few drinks won’t give you ‘beer glasses’ that make other people look more attractive, the study found. But when you’re tipsy, you may be more inclined to approach an attractive stranger.
A funny finding? Maybe. But it also raises questions about alcohol abuse.
“While these findings may seem titillating, we hope they contribute to a more serious goal of better understanding why some people are particularly sensitive to the seductive social effects of alcohol,” said co-author Michael Sayette, PhD, professor of psychology. at the University of Pittsburgh, where the study was conducted.
For the studyin the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, college men in a casual setting rated images of men or women depending on their sexual orientation. They did this twice: when they were drunk on vodka and when they were sober.
Results: Men with a buzz (average alcohol concentration of 0.07 breath) rated images no higher than sober men. But when the men were told they might meet the people they rate highly, they were 1.71 times more likely to want to make their best choices when they were drunk than when they were sober.
That vodka-boosted confidence could be explained by a few factors, says study author Molly Bowdring, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University. “Drinking alcohol may prompt people to be more social, or even before drinking they may expect to perform better sexually when drunk,” Bowdring said.
Alcohol can also reduce the fear of rejection, she said. “Alcohol can limit worrying about that, thinking that ‘oh, this interaction could go badly’ or ‘I might not be able to communicate the way I want to,'” Bowdring said.
In the study, the psychologists had 18 pairs of close friends (for a bar atmosphere) drink vodka and cranberry drinks before rating the images. The men could chat, but not talk about their reviews.
The men were told that after reviewing the images, they would be able to select their top four that they could potentially interact with in a future study. (That meeting was never intended to be real.) On another occasion, the same men entered the laboratory and reviewed the images while drinking non-alcoholic cranberry drinks for comparison.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with self-confidence. But learning to rely on beer or tequila shots for courage — especially perhaps if that reliance results in sex — can cause or worsen alcohol abuse, Sayette said.
A sobering issue
Alcohol abuse has serious health consequences. This is evident from an Australian study presented At the European Emergency Medicine Conference in Barcelona on Tuesday, patients who visited the emergency room for alcohol-related reasons were 44% more likely to return in the next ten years, and were 138% more likely to die within the next twenty years than patients whose illnesses or injuries were not caused by alcohol.
Other research has found that the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States increased dramatically between 2007 and 2020. In 2021, the number of deaths increased again, to… 108,791 alcohol-related deaths. That’s more than the number drug overdoses of opioids, methamphetamine and cocaine combined.
For many of the 29.5 million Americans of alcohol use disordera lack of self-confidence may be at the root of the problem. “The majority of people with severe alcohol use disorder have this ‘learned hopelessness,’” says Daniel Farmer, DO, medical director of the West Virginia University Medicine Center for Hope and Healing. “[They’ve] have had a life in which their perception has become so distorted that they feel that nothing can change for the better.”
Twelve-step programs, group therapy, and motivational interviewing, a counseling technique in which the therapist tries to motivate you to stay sober, all aimed at rebuilding the patient’s self-confidence and willingness to improve their life, Farmer said.
As for the “beer goggles,” Pitt’s little research doesn’t prove them to be a myth. The men in the study drank fewer than two alcoholic drinks in the experiment. Most people who drink that amount “don’t engage in risky behavior” or lose their inhibitions to the point where they desire another at a “higher level,” Farmer said.
When Bowdring and Sayette analyzed 16 previous studies on this topic, they identified a small but statistically significant link between drunkenness and sexual attraction to another person. “I’m not prepared to say that alcohol at this dose doesn’t affect perceived physical attractiveness, just that we didn’t observe it in this study,” Sayette said.
Sayette said they hope the research shows the importance of studying physical attraction in environments that mimic real life. Larger future studies could include volunteers all drinking together in a room, or even take the study to a bar and interview the customers.
It’s all part of an effort to uncover habits and behaviors that can lead to drinking problems. “If we can help people understand what they get out of their drinking experiences, they may be able to achieve their social goals without alcohol, whether it’s social bonding, better mood or intimacy,” Bowdring said.