Sept. 22, 2023 — We humans have a mixed relationship with alcohol. On one hand, it helps us relax after a stressful day and feel more at ease in social situations. But excessive use can impact your health, raising the risk of unsafe behavior, injuries, violence, and disease. 

Now researchers are saying that curbing those negative effects starts by better understanding alcohol’s appeal. Take a recent study into alcohol’s effects on men’s sexual urges. 

A couple of drinks does not give you “beer goggles” that make other people look more desirable, the study found. But being tipsy may make you more eager to approach an attractive stranger. 

An amusing finding? Maybe. But it also raises questions about alcohol abuse.

“While these findings may appear titillating, we hope that they contribute to a more serious objective, namely to better understand why some people are especially sensitive to alcohol’s alluring social effects,” said study co-author Michael Sayette, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, where the study was conducted. 

For the study, in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, college men in a casual setting rated images of men or women depending on sexual orientation. They did this twice — when intoxicated on vodka and when sober.

Result: Men with a buzz (average 0.07 breath alcohol concentration) didn’t rate images any higher than sober men. But when the men were told they might be able to meet the people they rated highly, they were 1.71 times more likely to want to meet their top choices when drinking than when sober.

That vodka-fortified confidence could be explained by a few factors, said study author Molly Bowdring, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University. “Drinking alcohol could cue people to be more social, or they may anticipate even prior to drinking that they’ll be better performers sexually when intoxicated,” Bowdring said.

Alcohol may also reduce anxiety about rejection, she said. “Alcohol can limit the rumination on that, the thinking that, ‘Oh this interaction might go poorly,’ or ‘I might not be able to communicate the way I want to,’” Bowdring said.

In the study, the psychologists had 18 pairs of good friends (for a bar hangout vibe) drink vodka and cranberry drinks before rating images. The men could chat but not discuss their ratings.

The men had been told that after rating the images, they would be able to select their top four to potentially interact with in a future study. (That meet-up was never intended to be real.) On a separate occasion, the same pairs of men came into the lab and rated images while drinking alcohol-free cranberry drinks, as a point of comparison.

There’s nothing wrong with self-confidence, of course. But when you learn to rely on beer or tequila shots for courage — especially, perhaps, if that confidence results in sex — it could trigger or worsen alcohol abuse, Sayette said. 

A Sobering Issue

Alcohol abuse has serious health consequences. According to an Australian study presented at the European Emergency Medicine Conference in Barcelona on Tuesday, patients who visited the emergency room for alcohol-related reasons returned 44% more times over the next 10 years, and were 138% more likely to die within the next 20 years, than patients whose illnesses or injuries were not caused by alcohol.

Other research has found that alcohol-related deaths in the United States increased dramatically between 2007 and 2020. In 2021, they jumped again, to 108,791 alcohol-related deaths. That’s more than the number of drug overdoses from opioids, methamphetamine, and cocaine combined. 

For many of the 29.5 million Americans with alcohol use disorder, a lack of self-confidence could be at the root of the problem. “The majority of those with severe alcohol use disorder have this ‘learned hopelessness,’” said Daniel Farmer, DO, the medical director at the West Virginia University Medicine Center for Hope and Healing. “[They’ve] had a life in which their perception has become warped to the point that they feel nothing can change for the better.”

Twelve-step programs, group therapy, and motivational interviewing, a counseling technique where the therapist tries to motivate you to stay sober, all aim to rebuild the patient’s self-confidence and willingness to improve their lives, Farmer said.

As for “beer goggles,” the small Pitt study does not prove it’s a myth.  The men in the study drank only to an average BAC of 0.07, below the legal limit in the United States. Most people drinking that amount “do not participate in risky behaviors” or lose inhibitions to the point of desiring another at a “higher level,” Farmer said.

When Bowdring and Sayette analyzed 16 previous studies on the topic, they identified a small but statistically significant association between drunkenness and sexual attraction to another person. “I am not prepared to say that at this dose alcohol does not affect perceived physical attractiveness, just that we did not observe it in this study,” Sayette said. 

Sayette said they hope the study demonstrates the importance of studying physical attraction in settings that mimic real life. Larger future studies could include volunteers who all drink together in a room, or even take the research out to a bar and interview the patrons. 

It’s all part of an effort to uncover habits and behaviors that can lead to problem drinking. “If we can help people to understand what they’re getting out of their drinking experiences, they might be able to achieve their social goals without alcohol, whether it’s social bonding, or improved mood, or intimacy,” Bowdring said.