Blind Drunk

Some looming hazards may be especially blurred by drinking.

By Rayne Ellis, published March 1, 2018 - last reviewed on May 8, 2018


Getting behind the wheel of a car is risky for an intoxicated person, but the consequences may not seem as obvious as those of walking into a busy street. Drinking can impair our responses to both clear-cut and vague dangers, but it most severely blunts our reactions to latter kind, according to a series of studies, the latest of which was reported in Social Cognitive and Affective NeuroscienceResearchers exposed sober and inebriated participants to cues that revealed whether they were about to receive an electric shock—and where on their bodies they would feel it. In some trials, however, the location of the shock was unclear. Using EEG, participants' anxiety ratings, and measurements of eye-blink startle responses, researchers found evidence of two patterns, says psychologist John Curtin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison: "First, drinkers pay less attention to threats when the consequences are uncertain. Second, to the degree that they do attend to uncertain threats, they are less distressed by them." Measures such as driver checkpoints, he says, might help curb dangerous behavior by making the risks more visible.