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Think You Can't Get Drunk on Soda Water? Think Again.

A powerful demonstration of how easily we can be fooled.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Have you ever felt more intoxicated than you thought you should, given the amount of alcohol that you consumed? The psychological effects of alcohol and the subjective feelings of alcohol intoxication depend upon many factors, including your weight, how much you have had to eat, and sleepiness.

But what about psychological factors? Can they also influence how alcohol affects you? Can factors such as context and expectations influence the subjective and behavioral effects that your pint of beer, glass of wine, or favorite cocktail has on you?

Past research has shown that merely believing that one is drinking alcohol can influence a wide range of behaviors, including aggression, cognitive-motor performance, anxiety levels, decision-making and risk-taking, and more (Hull & Bond, 1986). These findings exemplify the placebo effect, which describes the phenomenon of an inactive medication or substance (e.g., a sugar pill) affecting one’s medical symptoms and/or behavior simply because of the belief that it will. The placebo effect has long been studied in relation to medicine, and more recent research has suggested that the mere belief that one is drinking alcohol can lead to strong placebo effects.

Read on for a great and fun example of one such study.

Memory researchers in New Zealand were interested in how the placebo effect of alcohol could influence memory recall (Assefi and Garry, 2003). They tested college students in a realistic, pub-like atmosphere, complete with vodka bottles and barware. The researchers told half the participants that they would be drinking a vodka tonic (tonic water, lime, and vodka) and they told the other half that they would be drinking a non-alcoholic version of the same drink. In reality, all participants were given just the tonic water and lime—minus the vodka!

The researchers tricked half of the students into believing they were drinking vodka by pouring their drinks, while they watched, from actual Absolut vodka bottles, and rimming the glasses with vodka-soaked limes and real vodka so that the drinks would smell like the real thing.

Next, all participants were exposed to slides depicting a crime scene, and a subsequent story that was filled with misleading information. The researchers later tested all participants’ recall for the crime scene. The experimenters found that participants who thought they were under the influence of alcohol were more likely to be swayed by the misleading information and to be more confident of the accuracy of their memories.

These findings suggests that the participants’ mere belief that they were drinking vodka influenced their state of mind and/or perception when they viewed the crime scene, leading to worsened memory performance, and contributing to participants’ inappropriate overconfidence in their memory reports.

So, it turns out that the answer is yes: You can become “drunk” off of soda water, at least in terms of achieving the poor memory and overconfidence typically associated with being tipsy.

Joking aside, the results of this study provide just one more example of how strong the placebo effect can be, and how it can alter perception, memory, and beliefs. (The effect holds even when people know that they are receiving a placebo for medical treatment (e.g., Kaptchuk et al., 2010).) This means that the effect can be used to help people and that it can even be done without having to trick people into thinking they are receiving the real deal.


Assefi, S.L. and Garry, M. ABSOLUT® MEMORY DISTORTIONS: Alcohol Placebos Influence the Misinformation Effect. Psychological Science, Vol. 14, No. 1, January 2003

Hull JG, Bond CF. Social and behavioral consequences of alcohol consumption and expectancy: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. 1986;99:347–360.

T. J. Kaptchuk, E. Friedlander, J. M. Kelley, M. N. Sanchez, E. Kokkotou, J. P. Singer, M. Kowalczykowski, F. G. Miller, I. Kirsch, A. J. Lembo (2010) Placebos without deception: A randomized controlled trial in irritable bowel syndrome. PLoS One, 5

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