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Peer influence impacts perceived drunkenness

When intoxicated and in the company of others, people judge levels of drunkenness based not upon the objective level of alcohol they have consumed, but by the relative intoxication level of their peers, a new study reveals.

The study, published in BMC Public Health, found that people who are consuming alcohol with others who are also drinking alcohol are more likely to underestimate their own levels of drunkenness. When surrounded by sober people, however, the same drinkers were more inclined to feel that their behavior was riskier and would lead to more health-related complications.

“Researchers have historically worked under the assumption that those who drink most alcohol incorrectly ‘imagine’ everyone else also drinks to excess. It turns out that irrespective of how much someone has drunk, if they observe others who are more drunk than they are, they feel less at risk from drinking more,” Simon Moore, a co-author of the study, said.

Approaching random people at designated landmarks on primarily Friday and Saturday nights, the researchers tested 1,862 individuals for their breath alcohol concentration. After a questionnaire portion, there were 400 suitable participants who completed all parts of the study. The participants were selected from different social groups. Approximately 63 percent of these participants were male, with an average age of 27.

The researchers gauged the participants’ perceived levels of drinking and subsequent health consequences through a series of questions. The first question was, “How drunk are you right now?” This was followed by, “How extreme has your drinking been tonight?” The third question was, “If you drank as much as you have tonight every week how likely is it that you will damage your health in the next 15 years?” The final question was, “If you drank as much as you have tonight every week how likely is it that you will get liver cirrhosis in the next 15 years?”

Each participant was asked to respond to the questions on a scale of one to 10, with one being the least extreme and 10 being the most extreme. Participants who were found to have zero alcohol in their bloodstreams were excluded from this portion of the study.

Through these questions, it was found that most people perceived themselves as moderately intoxicated, though their breath alcohol contents put them past the acceptable drinking limit to drive in both the United Kingdom and the United States. This phenomenon, the study argues, could be due to an automatic sensitivity to hierarchy that stems from humans’ evolutionary past, making those in a social group who are lower in “rank” more susceptible to overdrinking.

“On the basis of the results described here, [the authors of the study] suggest that an inbuilt sensitivity to rank position amongst others can… lead people to assume they are less drunk and at risk than they actually are if they rank low amongst other drinkers,” the study claims.

By spreading out the area of license plates where alcohol is sold, the study suggests, lawmakers will be able to reduce the poor decision making that is caused by intoxicated people influencing one another.

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