Familiarity Breeds… Capacity For Drink?

Familiarity Breeds… Capacity For Drink?

Here’s an interesting new study about our capacity to handle the effects of drink: You apparently can handle your liquor better in settings where you are used to drinking, than in unfamiliar settings, or even places where you don’t usually drink, says LiveScience in a profile of new research at the University of Birmingham and published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism (via The Daily Mail, via HotAir).

First off, I want to stress that the tolerance for alcohol the researchers were measuring was not related to motor skills or reaction times. I.e. drinking in a familiar bar does not mean that you can drink more and still drive safely home.

The “tolerance” they cite is the ability to resist doing inappropriate things when drunk.

Like either one of these two….

Fortunately, the researchers did not expose their test subjects to contact with Snooki or He Who Is Paid NOT To Wear Abercrombie and Fitch. That would be creepy.

The actual tests were pretty benign. They measured whether subjects could resist selecting inappropriate responses in a battery of questions when drunk. If the subjects had not previously drunk alcohol in a place (even if they had drunk mocktails there), they were twice as likely to let certain inhibitions slip than in a place where they were used to drinking booze.

First off, kudos to Drs. Birak, Higgs, and Terry for coming up with the brilliant excuse for using University funds to take a bunch of undergrads on a series of pub crawls and see where they do the most stupid and embarrassing things….

Of course, they actually did no such thing, but it would have been awesome had they done so, yes? It also would have probably yielded more practical results, though less reproducible, alas. I just wrote the previous paragraph because it makes good copy. The results were actually quite limited, and not all the inhibition tests they performed produced results that support the effect.

That ends my reportage of the actual science, and let us begin the broad, sweeping generalizations of what we can take away from this if we accept the study’s conclusions in a general sense right off the bat.

Scientists hate it when the public just goes ahead and accepts a study right off and starts taking action on it because:

  1. The results are initial, unsupported by other studies, and incompletely understood.
  2. If everyone goes ahead and acts, there will be no need to fund additional studies on the subject.

“See that girl over there? I’ll bet the three of us could….”
The tragic effects of drinking too much in an unfamiliar bar.

First off, what might be the mechanism that accounts for this? I have read only the abstract, not the entire paper, but they seem to be leaning toward some sort of Pavlovian, behavioralist mechanism. My drinking instincts and experience aren’t really buying that. I have two, not necessarily competing theories.

The first is motivation. We tend to like places where we drink regularly. Sure, in this case, the drinkers didn’t choose to drink in a certain location repeatedly, but so what? I happen to really like the lobby bar of the Atlanta Airport Westin Hotel. Why on Earth? Because I’ve had a lot of drinks there over the years with family, friends, business rivals, and enemies. (In my family, the Venn diagram of those sets would be pretty much a single circle.) Many times, they were good times. But the location was chosen for me and the only reason I like it is because of the familiarity. Nevertheless, if I were to do something, um, uninhibited there, I might not be able to go back, either due to embarrassment or due to being barred. I wouldn’t like that, so I have added motivation in a familiar setting to behave myself. It could be as simple that a certain amount of booze disinhibits a drinker by, say, 30%. But if the familiarity of the setting increases his natural inhibitions by 30% to begin with….

I’ll employ a kind of techie metaphor for the second, even better idea I have. Let’s say that the brain has a certain (if prodigious) amount of bandwidth. We use that bandwidth all the time for lots of functions, such as look for threats, scan for hot members of the opposite (or indeed, our own) sex, figure what and how to eat, talk, keep in mind how to get to the toilet, talk to hot members of the opposite (or indeed, our own) sex, argue with the bartender about why he felt impelled to shake our damn Manhattan, figure out how to get our hands on the body of some selected hot member of the opposite (or indeed, our own) sex, and above all, for the purposes of this discussion, resist the temptation to actually just place our grubby mitts on said HMotO(oIOO)S, or even just blurt our intention or desire to do same.

Drinking narrows your bandwidth, full stop. Size, experience, etc. may reduce the narrowing, but all booze narrows everyone’s bandwidth.
However, in a familiar location, you know where the can is. You know who is likely to be a threat, or know there is likely to be none at all. You know that the bartender knows he better not shake your damn Manhattan.
You might think that you also would be comfortable being yourself and thus be less inhibited. But see Theory One above.
Instead, in most situations, I suggest that the brain saves on bandwidth by not worrying about such threats as bad guys, unknown bathrooms, and shaken Manhattans. It uses the bandwidth saved to try to maintain full function in its remaining tasks, such as keeping you from making an ass of yourself with that blonde paralegal.

successfully making an ass of yourself with her!

Unless you are married.
In which case you’d best be using all the inhibitions you got, Mister!

Of course, dear!

“I fail to see how any of this explains Cliff Clavin.”

It doesn’t, Norm. Science has no explanation for Cliffy. It does, however, pretty much explain you.


  1. Jason

    22 September

    I find I do sometimes have a bit too much when I am around new people in an unfamiliar setting. It has been my experience this is due to the following:

    1. Conversation can be uncomfortably sparse, which means I have nothing better to do than to drink.
    2. Drink removes anxiety. I find I drink extra without even thinking about it, it’s just an involuntary action.
    3. When I’m anxious/bored, I have an urge to do “something”. This something usually consists of me getting out of my seat to get another drink.

    I find if I don’t game plan before the festivities start, I am definitly putting myself into a dangerous situation.

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