How Do We View Social Drinkers?

Research reveals how drinking alcohol impacts first impressions.

Posted Nov 15, 2019

People indulge in alcohol consumption for a variety of reasons. Some drink socially, while others routinely drink to excess and are well aware of their addiction. As a career prosecutor I can validate what you no doubt already know, that from burglary to battery and a variety of offenses in between, many types of criminality involves alcohol consumption, usually far too much of it.

But among those who drink responsibly as opposed to excessively, how does their indulgence impact their own social perception, as well as the impression they are making on others?

Image by 453169 from Pixabay
Source: Image by 453169 from Pixabay

Does Alcohol Make You More Socially Attractive?

Among social drinkers, regardless of how we define the term, people usually drink in social settings while interacting with others without giving much thought to how their choice of beverage might impact their cognition or perception. Many social drinkers devote even less time to considering how their alcohol consumption and related behaviors impact the way other people view them.

Obviously, no one shows up at their company happy hour intending to get drunk and make a fool of themselves. Most would not intentionally overindulge on a first date either. Yet the majority of people would not think twice about completely abstaining during a business lunch, regardless of whether they were legally permitted to indulge on the clock. This indicates that to some extent, we are aware of the potential negative affects alcohol might have on perception, cognition, decision-making, and the ability to make a good impression.

Why, then, do so many social drinkers let their guard down among strangers? This question should be particularly relevant in today´s world where happy hour minglers routinely become online friends and connections in record time, as most public conversations occur with smartphones on hand—which also means that any type of party foul can potentially go viral instantaneously. Research reveals some potential answers.

The Deceptive Link Between Spirits and Socializing

Research by Edward Orehek et al. (2019) investigated how drinking alcohol impacted first impressions.[i] They began by acknowledging that people want to be viewed both accurately and in a positive light, leading them to manipulate social settings in pursuit of these goals.

They had individuals observe videotaped interactions from a prior study (Sayette et al. 2012), which had 720 participants consume one of three beverages: alcohol, placebo (participants who thought they were consuming alcohol), or control, while socializing in groups of three. What type of alcohol did the researchers use? Vodka and cranberry juice, consumed at measured intervals, resulting in a blood alcohol content of .06%. (By comparison, the legal limit for driving a motor vehicle is .08%.) The placebo group was served flattened tonic water instead of vodka, in glasses that were smeared with vodka beforehand to provide deceptive taste and smell cues.

The Sayette study found that participants who drank alcohol engaged in more smiling and talking, expressed less negative emotion, and experienced a higher degree of social bonding. Orehek et al. sought to determine how the feelings and behaviors of the participants would impact the impressions they were making on others.

The individuals in Orehek et al.'s study, oblivious to which participants in the Sayette study consumed alcohol, rated their personalities. Orehek et al. found that overall, outside observers rated the Sayette study participants who consumed alcohol (as opposed to the placebo or control group) as higher in extraversion—although they did not rate the drinking participants' personality traits more accurately. ("Thus," the researchers write, "the notion that alcohol brings forth one’s true self was not supported in this study.")

Orehek et al. noted that prior research indicates that alcohol can function as a “social lubricant” by enhancing extroverted behavior. They note that other research demonstrates that alcohol can increase self-disclosure. Indeed, they quote Jean Jaques Rousseau, who observed, “A drunk mind speaks a sober heart.”

But alcohol-fueled self-disclosure can be dangerous if you are speaking to the wrong person, as can many other behaviors facilitated by overindulgence.

Dangerous Overindulgence

Orehek et al. recognize that many other research studies document the downside of drinking alcohol. Negative effects include mental and physical impairment, compromised attention and memory, and increased risk-taking, among many others.

Taken together, research and common sense suggest that alcohol use might be deceptively alluring as a short-term social facilitator, with potential long-term implications. And of course, quantity matters. There is a big difference between having a glass of wine at dinner and downing multiple shots of alcohol at a bar—after which so many different things can go wrong.

Overindulgence can lead to foolishly reaching for car keys, agreeing to leave a party or bar with a stranger, or engaging in other risky behavior as a result of compromised judgment. Responsible drinking should incorporate an appreciation of how consumption impacts perception, behavior, impressions, and decision-making.


[i]Orehek, Edward, Lauren J. Human, Michael A. Sayette, John D. Dimoff, Rachel P. Winograd, and Kenneth J. Sher. “Self-Expression While Drinking Alcohol: Alcohol Influences Personality Expression During First Impressions.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, (April 2019).

Sayette, M. A., Creswell, K. G., Dimoff, J. D., Fairbairn, C. E., Cohn, J. F., Heckman, B. W., . . . Moreland, R. L. (2012). Alcohol and group formation: A multimodal investigation of the effects of alcohol on emotion and social bonding. Psychological Science, 23, 869-878.