No booze needed for beer goggles
Fast flashes of certain words can affect your libido.
The mere thought of beer or wine can influence your sex drive, according to a study of undergraduates.
Alcohol has long been known to have a number of effects on dating behaviour: some good, some bad. Enough booze can wipe away inhibitions and act as an aphrodisiac, or it can dampen sexual performance. It can even produce what are jokingly called 'beer goggles', which mean you judge people as more attractive when you are drunk.
But scientists now say that whatever effect someone expects from alcohol can be produced by simple exposure to flashes of alcohol-related words on a computer screen.
Ronald Friedman, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and his colleagues tested the idea on 82 male undergraduate students.
The researchers first questioned the men about how they felt alcohol affected their libido, and then presented them with rapidly flashing words and jumbled letters on a computer screen. One group was exposed to cue words that suggested alcohol, including beer, whisky, martini and malt; the other, control group was exposed to words such as smoothie, espresso and ice.
The men then rated 21 female high-school graduation photos on a scale of 1 to 9 in terms of attractiveness. The men who expected alcohol to boost their libido rated photos more favourably after subconsciously viewing alcohol cue words. Those who expected alcohol to reduce their performance actually rated the girls as less attractive after boozy words.
"What is most surprising is that mere expectancy can influence perception," says Markus Denzler, a co-author of the report, based at the International University Bremen, Germany. The findings appear in the May issue of the journal Addiction1.
The men were also asked to rate the girls' intelligence based on their pictures. In this case the flashing words had no impact on the results, so at least beer goggles may not make the world seem smarter than it really is.
The findings shed some worrying light on our vulnerability to subconscious cues, Friedman says. "These expectations about drugs or alcohol can be activated without your awareness."
Friedman stresses that other studies have shown how simple words can sway our behaviour. One notable study found that after undergraduate students were subconsciously exposed to phrases such as 'old age' and 'bingo' they walked more slowly down hallways2.
Assessing the power of these veiled cues is important, agrees Jack Darkes, a clinical psychologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa who has studied assumptions about alcohol. "It's another link in the chain that supports what a lot of us have been saying for a while," he says. Darkes notes that appreciating the difference between psychological and chemical effects may help those with alcohol addictions to face up to their problem.
- Friedman, R. S.,McCarthy, D. M.,Förster, J. & Denzler, M. Addiction 100, 672 - 681 (2005); doi:10.1038/nature03575
- Bargh, J. A.,Chen, M. & Burrows, L. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 71, 230 - 244 (1996).