How Drunk Are You? Don't Ask the Bartender

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It turns out that “get on my level” isn’t just a peer pressure–riddled challenge — it’s a scientific measurement of drunkenness. A new study published on Tuesday in the BioMed Central Journal has found that while intoxicated, you are more likely to base your perceived drunkenness on how drunk others around you are — not by how many drinks you’ve consumed.

The study, which was conducted by Professor Simon Moore from Cardiff University in the U.K., analyzed data collected from 1,862 male and female participants (with the average age of 26) who were breathalyzed after nights out on the town. Tests were carried out between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m. on Saturday nights in four U.K. locations characterized by pubs and an active nightlife scene. After imbibing, the participants were separated into eight different social groups (one for each gender in each location), and individual breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) levels were then ranked within each reference group.

After collecting the BrAC from participants, researchers explored the link between their actual BrAC levels and just how drunk participants thought they were. A sub-set of 400 participants answered a series of questions about how they perceived their level of drunkenness, and the drunker others around them were, the less drunk they perceived themselves to be. Additionally, the more sober their peers were, the drunker and more foolish individuals felt — regardless of what their BrAC levels actually were. “We did expect a relationship, but we did not expect to find such a strong relationship between the environment and an individual's perceptions about themselves,” says Professor Simon Moore, the corresponding author from Cardiff University.

This is great news for anyone who has indulged in a few party beverages and felt like a fool the next day (if others were also busy drinking, chances are no one is batting an eye at you). But on the flip side, turning down that second beer when everyone else is sipping water can keep you out of awkward social situations. However, for those who have a tendency to drink excessively, this means that it’s probably not best to hang around others who like to knock a few too many back. 

It’s no surprise that the art of social drinking is science, but it turns out that using social cues to know when to order that next round and when to call it a night is more than just good manners. "Our work tapped into some quite fundamental aspects of how we think,” Moore says. “Making people aware of the way an environment can shape their judgments might be enough for them to pay more attention to their own health. Just because there are a lot of people near them who are drinking too much does not mean they also have to drink to excess.”