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People Feel More Tipsy if Their Friends Are Already Drunk

Understanding perceived levels of intoxication could help cities combat disorderly conduct

“I’m not drunk, YOU’RE drunk” (mediaphotos via iStock)
smithsonian.com

Throughout human history, alcohol has had an important place in many of the world’s cultures—oftentimes as a social lubricant. Now, a group of scientists have found that social settings might color a person’s individual experience when they’re out for a drink or two at the bar. According to a new study, drunk people tend to base how drunk they think they are on how others around them act, and this finding could help cities combat heavy drinking and misbehavior.

In the study, published in the journal BioMed Central Public Health, researchers from Cardiff University surveyed 1,862 clubgoers and bar hoppers in Cardiff to see how drunk they thought they were. Then the researchers administered a breathalyzer test and asked them to rate their level of drunkenness, how heavy they had been drinking and their long-term health, Annalee Newitz reports for Ars Technica.

It might seem funny to imagine drunk people calmly discussing their night out with scientists, but the amusing situation gave some sobering results. By comparing their subjects' responses with their actual measured blood alcohol level, the researchers found that people tend to view their own inebriation on a scale measured against people around them, Daisy Meager reports for Munchies.

If a person drank a lot, but was with people who drank in moderation, they might see themselves as less drunk than the breathalyzer conveys. On the flip side, someone who had a handful of drinks might feel more rambunctious if they spent the night partying with serious drinkers.

This could also explain how drinking increases in a society. If everyone is drinking more, their perception of their level of drunkenness—and risk for alcohol-related disorders—remains the same, according to the study.

The results could help explain why some people get rowdier when hanging out with heavier drinkers. It also suggests that the reverse is possible, too: bringing more sober people into the environment can have a calming effect on rambunctious drunks. For places that have problems with people getting too drunk and getting into trouble, changing the makeup of the local social scene could have a big impact, Meager reports.

“We know that as the number of pubs and clubs increase in an area, you tend to see more alcohol-related harm,” Simon Moore, a co-author of the study and professor in public health, tells Meager. “Coupled with our findings, I think we would suggest that altering the mix of venues, that is bring more sober people into the night time environment, might help.”

By simply hiring so-called “sober ambassadors” like designated drivers, bars and clubs could help tone down dangerous drinking by giving party people a more calibrated social standard to match their level of drunkenness against. While more research needs to be done to examine how sober people affect perceptions of drunkenness, it could help people behave better when out for a drink.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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