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Why Beer Goggles Work

Alcohol impairs the ability to perceive facial symmetry – a signal of good genes

Beer goggles have been described as both a friend and a foe. Now a study helps explain why drinking alcohol can make the people around you look more attractive.

It may not provide much by the way of comfort if you have fallen victim to its darker influences, but scientists have zeroed in on one mechanism that causes the “beer goggle effect.” Evidently, alcohol impairs a person’s ability to detect facial symmetry. Ample research shows that symmetry — the degree to which both sides of an individual's face match — is an advertisement of good genes. Subsequently, the idea goes, good genes make for a better potential mate, or at least a potential tryst. But once alcohol enters the picture, the ability to accurately discern symmetry begins to break down.

In order to test whether consuming alcohol impairs the perception of facial symmetry, Lewis Halsey of the University of Roehampton and his team invited over 100 volunteers to a laboratory to have a drink and assess some images. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three drinking conditions: an alcoholic drink (alcohol-dosed), a similar-tasting non-alcoholic drink (placebo) or a diluted orange cordial (control). Those in the alcohol-dosed condition were given a drink consisting of 37.5% proof vodka and tonic water. The non-alcoholic drink for the placebo condition was just tonic water. All drinks were served chilled and flavored, with either a lime or black currant cordial at the volunteers' choosing.

Twenty to 40 minutes after finishing their drink, the volunteers completed tests of concentration and two facial perception tasks. The purpose of the tasks was to determine whether and how much participants preferred symmetrical faces over asymmetrical faces, and how well they could detect whether or not a face was symmetrical. In both instances, the images were displayed on a laptop computer screen. For the preference task, the volunteers were shown a series of 20 paired faces. The two faces of a pair belonged to the same individual, but they had actually been doctored so that one was symmetrical and the other was asymmetrical. The participants were instructed to select the more attractive face. For the detection task, the volunteers were shown successive images of 20 faces and verbally stated whether they perceived them to be symmetrical or asymmetrical.

What did the researchers find? All the volunteers favored symmetrical faces. However, the people who consumed alcohol had more trouble discerning symmetry, and their abilities grew worse the more they drank. They also discovered that women’s perceptual abilities were more impaired under the influence of alcohol than that of men.

Samuel Johnson is believed to have said, “Beauty lies in the hands of the beer holder.” Now science can give us some insight as to why.

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More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse.

Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.


Halsey LG, Huber JW, Hardwick JC. (2012). Does alcohol consumption really affect asymmetry perception? A three-armed placebo-controlled experimental study. Addiction.

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