Could the “beer goggles effect” — the idea that drinking alcohol causes people to see others as more attractive — be a myth?
A new British study — one that tested the “beer goggles effect” in a real-world setting rather than in a laboratory — suggests that it is.
And, yes, studying this topic does have some importance, for the “beer goggles” effect is often used to explain, at least in part, why people take more sexual risks after consuming alcohol.
For the study, psychologist Olivia Maynard and her colleagues at the University of Bristol recruited 311 volunteers in three Bristol pubs on two consecutive weekends.
Each participant was asked to estimate his or her perceived level of intoxication, but was also given a breath alcohol test so the researchers would have an accurate measurement of the amount of alcohol consumed.
The participants were then asked to look at the photographed faces of 20 men and 20 women (mean age: 21 years) on a tablet computer and rate each one for attractiveness on a 7-point scale, ranging from “very unattractive” to “very attractive.”
An analysis of the data found no evidence of a correlation between how much alcohol the participants had drunk and how attractive they found the photos.
In fact, there was evidence of a negative relationship between breath alcohol levels and the attractiveness scores of same-sex faces, particularly among men.
Lab vs. pub findings
This failure to find a “beer goggle effect” conflicts with the results of several earlier studies conducted in laboratories — including one by this same team of researchers.
“An important difference between these laboratory experiments and the present naturalistic study,” explain Maynard and her co-authors, “is the self-administration of alcohol here, as compared with random allocation to alcohol or placebo conditions in laboratory experiments.”
People in the laboratory experiments tended to consume more alcohol than those in the pubs.
“It is possible that alcohol may only affect perception of attractiveness at a higher level of alcohol consumptions, which was not observable with the naturalistic design used here,” write the researchers.
Limitations and implications
This study has several important limitations. For example, participants were not asked to report their sexuality, their relationship status or their level of sexual arousal — all factors that may have influenced their ratings of attractiveness.
Still, the study had a somewhat robust number of participants, which adds strength to its findings.
And those findings suggest — counter to what has long been believed — that the so-called goggles effect may have less to do with alcohol’s influence on perceptions of attractiveness than on its ability to lower inhibitions and impair judgment.