Joshua Resnick/Shutterstock
Source: Joshua Resnick/Shutterstock

Most of us are familiar with the concept of "beer goggles"—the notion that friends and strangers alike become more attractive after a drink (or two). Beer goggles are frequently a topic of sitcoms and, if you’re unlucky, occasionally discussed over an uncomfortable brunch. The television show "Mythbusters" even dedicated a segment to the phenomenon, in which hosts Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, and Kari Byron judged the attractiveness of people while sober, buzzed, and drunk.

Is beer goggles a real phenomenon? Or is it an urban legend?

In 2003, a team of British researchers released a landmark study in the scientific journal Addiction. They brought 80 heterosexual college students to either a bar or restaurant and had them look at and rate the attractiveness of pictures of men and women.

Sure enough, participants, both men and women, who had consumed alcohol were more generous with their ratings. The men who drank were more likely than the men who didn’t drink to believe that the women in the pictures were attractive, and the women who drank were more likely than the women who didn’t drink to believe that the men in the pictures were attractive. The attractiveness ratings, however, did not increase when inebriated men and women judged photographs of people of the same sex.

Consuming alcohol appeared to be enough to change the attractiveness of potential romantic partners—in other words, beer goggles is more than a myth.

Although this study was the first to prove the existence of beer goggles, it’s hardly the only one. Here are a few other examples of studies that look at alcohol’s effect on romance:

  • In 2014, a study in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism revealed that beer goggles can influence the perceived attractiveness of both animate and inanimate objects. The researchers randomly assigned 103 men and women to drink either alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverages. Each group was then shown images of both faces and landscapes. Not only did alcohol increase the perceived attractiveness of both minimally and moderately attractive faces, it also increased the perceived beauty of minimally attractive landscapes.
     
  • A 2012 study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that cigarettes can enhance the beer-goggles effect. Researchers at the University of Bristol looked at 96 social drinkers who also smoked. In the study, participants smoked either a nicotine or nicotine-free cigarette and consumed either an alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverage. Not only did consuming alcohol make faces seem more attractive than usual, drinking and smoking at the same time created the highest attractiveness ratings of any combination.
     
  • In 2013, a group of French researchers found that the more alcoholic drinks people consumed, the more attractive they found themselves. This study, comically titled, “Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder,” was published in the British Journal of Psychology. Study participants consumed either an alcoholic or a nonalcoholic drink, with half of each group being told (correctly or incorrectly) that they had consumed alcohol. After the drinks, each participant delivered a speech and was instructed to rate how attractive, bright, original, and funny they were. Participants who drank gave themselves significantly more positive self-evaluations than people who didn’t drink. People who simply believed that they drank also gave themselves more positive self-evaluations, suggesting that this effect is at least in part psychological. (The scientists noted that, regardless of their self-confidence, participants who were drunk did not deliver better speeches than those who were sober.)
     
  • In 2015, a study published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism found that to sober individuals, people who had consumed a low dose of alcohol looked more attractive than fellow sober people. In this experiment, the researchers showed sober participants pictures of the same person both sober and after consuming certain quantities of alcohol. Participants believed that the faces of people who had consumed a low dose of alcohol were more attractive than sober faces and the faces of people who had consumed a high dose of alcohol.
     
  • In 2008, researchers at Penn State found that the beer-goggles effect isn’t restricted to humans. This study, published in PLOS One, found that male fruit flies that had been chronically exposed to alcohol were significantly less choosy when it came to finding a mate. Specifically, they were more “forward” with female fruit flies and would regularly try to mate with male fruit flies.

What is it about alcohol that makes us more inclined to romance?

It may have something to do with lowered social inhibitions. In one study, researchers found that people who had been drinking were more likely to help someone who had dropped an object than people who hadn’t been drinking. With lowered social inhibitions, it may be easier to feel a little more confident and “make a move.”

It’s also possible that alcohol impairs our ability to recognize symmetry, an important component of attractiveness. One study found that people who consumed alcohol were less able to recognize asymmetrical shapes. With alcohol in our system, then, we may be less inclined to notice a love interest’s crooked nose or jagged smile.

Another possibility is that drinking kicks our brain’s reward system into overdrive. Researchers found that alcohol causes the brain to release high levels of “feel good” endorphins and dopamine, chemicals that work with the reward pathway to fuel our desire for enjoyable activities, including a good meal and a good lover. Drinking might make us more likely to seek out these pleasurable activities, even if it means lowering our usual standards.

Beer goggles are also likely a psychological effect—at least in part. In American culture, sharing a glass of wine with a lover is hardly uncommon, nor is downing a glass of champagne before a New Year’s kiss. Even with the growing popularity of online dating, bars are still places where people seek out potential mates. Since we associate alcohol with romance, we may be more likely to feel romantic—and view others as romantic—after a couple drinks.

Regardless of why, beer goggles appear to be a real phenomenon. ("Mythbusters," by the way, concluded that the beer goggles myth is “plausible,” because all three hosts rated faces as more attractive when they were drunk.) When we’re drunk, we’re less discerning and more likely to make an impulsive romantic decision.

In the end, when it comes to pursuing a love interest, it might be best to make sure you’re both sober first. It wouldn’t hurt to give the beer goggles a chance to wear off.

Contributed by Courtney Lopresti, M.S.

About the Author

Ralph Ryback M.D.

Ralph Ryback, M.D., has taught at many institutions including Harvard Medical School. 

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