Don’t blame the beer goggles-they might be a myth
Large in-pub experiment finds that alcohol levels don’t make people prettier.
by Cathleen O’Grady
Aug 26, 2015
The existence of “beer goggles”-the tendency to find fellow drinkers growing more attractive as you drink more-is in dispute. A study conducted in a naturalistic setting (that is, a pub), found that increased alcohol consumption did not boost attractiveness ratings.
The existence of beer goggles has been studied in both lab and naturalistic settings before, but always with some limitations. In lab settings, well, people are in a lab. You can’t be sure that people’s behaviour when they’re being observed by people in white coats will match up with what they’d do in the real world.
That said, lab studies have the advantage of being able to control more factors. They can do a reasonable job of hiding the point of the experiment from the subjects, and they can control how much alcohol everyone drinks, measured out by body weight. A few of these studies have found a beer goggle effect for heterosexual participants rating opposite-sex faces, but they also rated same-sex faces and landscapes more highly, suggesting that they were just generally more pleased with the world after some scientifically sanctioned drinking.
Naturalistic studies, taking place in real-world drinking holes, have different advantages. They can boast more ecological validity, giving a better insight into real-world behaviour, but they often have more difficulty closing gaps in their methods. Some real-world studies have found a beer goggles effect; others haven’t.
Previous field studies on beer goggles have had some troublesome limitations, like asking participants to rate the attractiveness of other people in the pub, rather than controlling the faces being rated. This makes the ratings very difficult to analyse. Some other studies didn’t provide any objective measure of alcohol consumption, instead asking participants to rate their own level of inebriation.
Alcohol, Android and social media
A team led by addiction researcher Olivia Maynard set out to close these gaps. The researchers used 20 landscape images, 20 male faces, and 20 female faces. The faces belonged to real-world couples, in an attempt to match their levels of attractiveness as evenly as possible. All of the images were built into a custom Android app, allowing for an easily portable, tablet-based experiment.
The team then promoted the experiment on social media as an event at three Dawkins Ales pubs in Bristol, offering a prize draw for £50 in shopping vouchers for participants. On Friday and Saturday nights on two weekends, pub patrons were given information sheets about the study and, if they agreed to participate, moved to a separate table to take part.
Overall, 311 people took part. They were asked to rate each of the faces and landscapes on a scale of one to seven. Afterwards, they were given a breathalyser test, asked how drunk they felt on a scale of one to seven, and asked whether they expected alcohol to increase sexual arousal.
Contrary to expectations, there was no correlation between breath alcohol and attractiveness ratings. In fact, people’s ratings of opposite-sex faces showed no real pattern at all. A new effect popped up, however: ratings of same-sex faces actually dropped slightly with higher alcohol levels. No other study has reported this, so it could be a fluke or just noise in the data; we won’t know for sure until it’s replicated.
No study is without its flaws, and a big problem here is that people knew ahead of time what was being tested. That could mean that participants second-guessed their attractiveness ratings, skewing the results. It’s difficult to see how a study like this could be conducted without giving away the game, though; participants would probably guess the point pretty easily even if they weren’t told explicitly what was being tested.
Intriguingly, there’s also the possibility that average alcohol consumption across the group was just too low; in the lab, alcohol can be doled out evenly, but people’s drinking excesses in the real world vary far more widely-the breathalyser results from this study might be lower on average than a lab study. This could explain part of the difference between lab and real-world results-people just weren’t drunk enough.
If these findings contradict your experience, and you tend to find yourself eyeing the stranger you previously rebuffed after you’ve had a few, there’s another possible explanation: alcohol might not mean you find strangers more attractive, but it could change your motivation levels.
That is, you might not necessarily find your hookup more attractive, but you could just be prepared to try harder, or lower your standards, once you’re drunk. We’ll need more studies to work out why the effect shows up sometimes and not others before we can shed light on the actual mechanisms at work.