Research shows that people report feeling more intoxicated when they’re around others who are drinking alcohol—even if they haven’t been drinking themselves.
Alcohol is described as a social lubricant for a reason. While it’s technically considered a depressant, for most people drinking alcohol in reasonable amounts produces feelings of euphoria and sociability. We drink in the company of others, at parties and in restaurants and bars as a way of relaxing and having fun.
We know this from experience, but the social situations in which we drink are also too complex to know for sure if it’s the alcohol or something else that makes the difference. How much of that feeling of happiness comes from drinking a couple glasses of wine, and how much comes from being in the presence of good friends? Is it easier to have conversations at happy hour because you’re drinking, or because the life of the party just showed up to break the ice?Harriet de Wit, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, studies what kinds of factors influence people’s responses to drugs, such as social environment, genetics and personality traits. In a recent study published in the journal Psychopharmacology, she and postdoctoral scholar Matthew Kirkpatrick looked at how social factors influence the perceived effects of alcohol, and found that the presence of another person—whether they have been drinking or not—does indeed have an impact.
The majority of studies in this field focus on a single, isolated person, where each subject sits alone a room, with no outside distractions to influence the experiment. But that includes other people too, removing the social environment of drinking.
In this experiment, de Wit and Kirkpatrick randomly assigned subjects to be paired with another person of the same sex or tested individually. They participated in four sessions each, two in which they received alcohol and two with a placebo. When participants were paired, the combinations were varied so that both subjects received alcohol at the same time in one of the sessions, both received placebo in one of the sessions, and in the other two sessions one received alcohol while the other got a placebo. To minimize expectations, they were also told that they would receive a stimulant, a sedative, an opioid, alcohol or a placebo.
Not surprisingly, the subjects who received alcohol reported greater feelings of intoxication and stimulation when they were paired with another person, compared to those who were alone. But they also reported more intoxication when their partner received alcohol, even if they had a placebo themselves.“That was a little surprising,” Kirkpatrick said. “The drunk person somehow ‘brought along’ a placebo-treated person.”
The presence of others didn’t have any physiological effects, however. Subjects’ heart rates and blood pressure were unaffected by the presence of a partner, and the isolated and paired individuals reported similar feelings of sedation and dizziness when they received alcohol.
Kirkpatrick and de Wit said they want to continue with different variations of the same experiment, pairing different numbers of subjects and those of the opposite sex to learn more about how the social situation enhances alcohol. This could provide insight into problem drinking behaviors as well.
“There might be some people who are sort of ho-hum about alcohol by itself, but if there are other people around then they take off with it,” de Wit said. “That might be a risk factor for some people.”
So there is a reason having a few drinks is more fun with friends, but it’s not just the booze talking. The social environment that comes with drinking—or at least the suggestion of it—affects the way people feel about it too.
Kirkpatrick M.G. & Wit H. In the company of others: social factors alter acute alcohol effects, Psychopharmacology, DOI: 10.1007/s00213-013-3147-0