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People associate wine, beer and spirits with different types of emotions, study finds

The researchers refer to their study as only “an initial exploration of alcohol’s perceived relationship with emotions.”

Heavy drinkers were much more likely to say they associated both positive and negative emotions with drinking.
Andy Masuo

People associate different emotions with different types of alcohol, according to a study published online in the journal BMJ Open.

The study, which surveyed almost 30,000 young adults from 21 countries, found that vodka, gin, whiskey, rum and other spirits are most frequently associated with feelings of aggression, while beer and wine are more likely to cause people to feel relaxed.

But spirits are also more likely than beer and wine to elicit two positive feelings — energy and confidence, the study found.

Of course, these findings don’t mean that different types of alcohol actually cause different types of emotions. As pointed out by the authors of the study (a team of researchers from Public Health Wales and Kings College London) many other factors are involved, including advertising, when and where the alcohol is drunk, what the person’s mood was before they started drinking, and the alcohol content of different drinks.

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In fact, the researchers refer to their study as only “an initial exploration of alcohol’s perceived relationship with emotions.”  

Still, the findings may help policymakers develop more effective interventions for one of the world’s most pressing public health issues: the harmful use of alcohol, which is a direct factor in more than 200 diseases and injury-related medical conditions. In the United States, about 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year, making alcohol the third-leading cause of preventable death.

“Understanding emotions associated with alcohol consumption is imperative to addressing alcohol misuse, providing insight into what emotions influence drink choice between different groups in the population,” the researchers write in their paper.

Positive and negative emotions

The data for the study comes from the Global Drug Survey, which each year asks 100,000 people around the world to anonymously answer questions on the ways in which they use both legal and illicit drugs. The study analyzed the responses of 29,836 people, aged 18 to 34, who said they had drunk four types of alcohol — beer, red wine, white wine and spirits — during the previous 12 months.

Among the survey’s questions were ones that asked the respondents which emotions they associated with each alcohol type, both positive (energized, relaxed, sexy, confident) and negative (tired, aggressive, ill, restless, tearful). The current study analyzed those answers, accounting for such demographic factors as age, gender, education and country of origin, as well as the respondents’ level of dependency on alcohol (based on how much alcohol they said they consumed).

The analysis revealed that people tend to attribute different emotions to different types of alcohol. Here are some of the findings:

  • Spirits were more likely to be associated with positive emotions than beer, red wine or white wine. More than half of the respondents said drinking spirits made them feel energized and confident (about 60 percent), and four in 10 (42 percent) said it made them feel sexy.
  • But spirits were also more likely to draw out negative emotions. Almost half of the respondents (48 percent) said drinking spirits made them ill, for example, and almost a third (30 percent) said it made them feel aggressive. By comparison, only 2.5 percent of the respondents linked aggression to drinking red wine and only 6.7 percent linked it to drinking beer. Restlessness and tearfulness were also much more likely to be attributed to drinking spirits than to the other types of alcohol.
  • Spirits were the least likely type of alcohol to be associated with feeling relaxed (20 percent), while red wine was the most likely (53 percent), followed by beer (50 percent).
  • Drinking red wine was the type of alcohol most associated with feelings of tiredness (60 percent). (This was not true in Italy, however, where respondents were more likely to say it energized them.)

Other findings

Women were significantly more likely than men to report an emotion — positive or negative — with all four types of alcohol. The exception was aggression, which was more frequently reported by men (37 percent) than women (31 percent).

Younger respondents (18 to 24) were more likely to associate any type of alcohol with feelings of confidence, energy and sexiness — but mostly when they were drinking away from home.

Education affected responses as well. “Emotions associated with each drink type were more frequently reported by respondents who had not attended high school or higher education, with the exception of feeling sexy, ill or restless when drinking spirits, relaxed or tired when drinking red wine and energised or relaxed when drinking beer,” the study’s authors write (with British spellings).

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The researchers also found some geographic differences. Respondents from Brazil and Columbia reported the strongest association between alcohol and the positive emotions of feeling energized, relaxed and sexy, while those in Norway reported the strongest association with aggression. People in France were the most likely to link alcohol with feelings of restlessness. The study’s authors say these results need to be interpreted with caution, however, due to the relatively small number of respondents who participated from each country.

Heavy drinkers were much more likely to say they associated both positive and negative emotions with drinking. They were, for example, almost five times more likely than to say that alcohol energized them and almost six times more likely to say it made them feel aggressive. 

Heavy drinkers were also less likely to report feelings of tiredness. This is “consistent with existing evidence on heavy drinking and alcohol dependence, including the development of tolerance to the sedative effects of alcohol,” the study’s authors write.

Plenty of caveats

This was an observational study, so no cause-and-effect conclusions should be drawn from it. Also, the respondents were self-selecting, so they may or may not be representative of the general population in their countries. They also relied on their memories to report their alcohol consumption and the emotions it elicited — memories that are fallible.

Still, the findings are interesting — and may prove useful.

“Understanding the relationship between different types of alcohol and the emotions and associated behaviours they may elicit may help improve public health messages and health promotion and may help to prevent escalation to dependent drinking,” the study’s authors write.

“Previous studies have tended to focus on the effect of alcohol as a whole,” they add. “These results suggest that the different types of alcohol are not necessarily perceived or used in the same way and therefore harm prevention policy may benefit from treating types of drinks differently, especially when addressing spirits and, for instance their significant association with aggression.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on the BMJ Open’s website.