When we drink, we judge our level of drunkenness based not on how we feel, but on how drunk the people around us are. If we’re surrounded by sober people, it’s easy to realize our intoxication. If we’re in a bar surrounded by a bunch of drunk people, we feel less drunk, less at risk, and more game to keep on drinking.
A new study from the U.K.’s Cardiff University shows that we judge our level of drunkenness, and the health consequences thereof, relative to the general level of those around us, specifically people of our same gender. Most research has relied on participants’ memories of being drunk, says the University of Cardiff’s newsroom, in order to compare their levels of intoxication. As you can imagine, those memories may not have been entirely accurate.
For this study, the brave researchers headed out onto the streets of Cardiff on a Friday and a Saturday night, from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., in four locations surrounded by bars and nightclubs. They tested the breath-alcohol concentration levels of participants and asked them four questions to gauge how drunk they felt they were. The researchers could then compare the answers not only to their own breath alcohol concentrations but to the levels of everyone else tested in the immediate vicinity.
The results show a clear crowd mentality. If everyone around us is also drunk, then we also tend to underestimate the health risks of drinking.
It’s no surprise that our judgement fails after a few drinks, but the consistency of these results could lead to strategies that mitigate excessive drinking. “We could either work to reduce the number of very drunk people in a drinking environment, or we could increase the number of people who are sober. Our theory predicts the latter approach would have greatest impact,” says lead author Simon Moore.
One strategy might be to reduce the density of drinkers in licensed premises. Another is more mixed use establishments, where customers can order alternative drinks like tea or coffee into the night, but this really goes against the pub and bar culture in the U.K. It’s a tricky problem, but now at least we know a little bit more about the mechanics of drunken mobs.
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