Grenoble University researchers answered that question winning this year's Ig Nobel prize for psychology, the first time French psychologists have won the award ('Spoof Nobel prize goes to alcohol study', The Connexion, October 2013).
Real Nobel laureates award Ig Nobel prizes annually at a Harvard University ceremony to research that "makes you laugh, then think". The awards were created by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research in 1991. Previous winners have studied the role of oral sex among bats and how to prevent patients from exploding during colonoscopies.
The Grenoble researchers wanted to know why people believe they are more attractive after a few drinks ('Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder', published in the British Journal of Psychology). Their question was: is the effect due to consuming alcohol or to the activation of subliminal positive associations towards alcohol consumption?
Subjects were recruited first in a Grenoble bar where their levels of intoxication were compared with reports of how seductive, intelligent, original and funny they felt. Higher levels of intoxication correlated strongly with higher levels of perceived self-attractiveness. No surprise there. However, the barroom study on self-attractiveness could not disentangle alcohol's pharmacological effects from the psychological effects of just believing that alcohol has been consumed - because all the subjects were intoxicated and knew it - the second study did though.
Researchers placed a small ad in a local Grenoble paper to recruit subjects for a taste-test for a bogus private research firm Stat-food. They were instructed to fast for three hours before their appointment and assigned randomly on arrival to one of two groups: one group tasted an alcoholic drink; the other group tasted a non-alcoholic drink. Half of the subjects in each group were told their drink was alcoholic and half were told their drink was non-alcoholic (a balanced placebo design). After consuming their drinks, subjects wrote and delivered a filmed message ostensibly to promote the new drink; then they watched their performances and rated how attractive, bright, original and funny they thought they were using the same questionnaire employed in the earlier barroom study. Subjects who believed they had consumed alcohol - even those they had not actually consumed alcohol - gave themselves the most positive self-evaluations. Subjects who had in fact consumed alcohol but believed they had not did not rate themselves as more attractive.
So, believing one has consumed alcohol rather than actually consuming alcohol influences self-evaluations of attractiveness. In fact, the quantity of alcohol ingested was not related to self-perceived attractiveness. "Everybody thinks that alcohol reduces inhibition and makes people feel more self-assured," said researcher Laurent Bègue. "Our results challenges these beliefs by showing that the mere belief one has consumed alcohol increases self-perceived attractiveness."
The filmed promotional messages were later rated by 22 independent, sober judges using the same attractiveness questionnaire. The judges' ratings showed that boosts in self-evaluation were unrelated to actual performances. Thus drunkenness is not merely a physiological consequence of alcohol but can be understood as a consequence of the activation of alcohol-related concepts in memory.
Previous intoxication studies have shown that alcohol consumption increases the attractiveness of members of the opposite sex (the "beer goggles" effect). In one study, the mere subliminal activation of alcohol-related concepts caused men to rate the faces of women more sexually attractive. Other studies show that the mere expectation of drinking alcohol signifcantly increases sexual arousal, whereas actual alcohol consumption has a non-significant effect on sexual arousal (or worse).
The Grenoble study's conclusions could help public authorities to communicate better about where the dangers of alcohol consumption actually originate. Meanwhile, it is a sobering thought that your festive season's designated driver may be getting 'intoxicated' on alcohol-free booze.