Being in the presence of alcohol beverages may make it harder to take another’s perspective and heavier alcohol consumption may be linked to difficulties with visual perspective taking, according to new research published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
“Alcohol is generally considered to be a social lubricant and so we thought it would be interesting to examine the extent to which alcoholic stimuli may interfere with an individual’s ability to understand other people’s points of view,” said study author Rebecca Monk (@DrRebeccaMonk), a lecturer in psychology and associate head of department at Edge Hill University.
“Previous research has shown that people vary in their ability to infer others’ mental states and emotions, and a number of factors can impact this. We identified a gap in understanding to focus simple visual perspective taking and the role of alcohol-related stimuli.”
For their study, the researchers used Prolific to recruit a sample of 108 participants from different parts of the world, mostly from Europe and Africa. To be a part of the study, participants needed to be social drinkers, but they couldn’t have any current or past alcohol-related therapy.
Participants in the study completed a computerized to assess visual perspective taking.
They were asked to follow the instructions of a virtual “director” to move objects in a vertical grid of squares. The director was situated on the other side of the grid and could not see all of the objects due to occluded cells. The objects included 16 alcoholic drinks, 16 non-alcoholic drinks, and a variety of non-consumable items, such as lipstick.
The participants were instructed to move alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks that were mutually visible (target objects) while avoiding drinks only visible to themselves (distractors). The task aimed to test participants’ ability to understand the director’s perspective.
In the experimental condition, participants were given instructions that could refer to a target drink that both they and the director could see, or to a distractor drink that only they could see. In the control condition, the instructions only referred to the target drink that both could see, and a non-drink item was used to replace the drink that only the participant could see.
Surprisingly, participant performance was not worse when the target was non-alcohol, and the distractor was alcohol. “In people who drink alcohol, focus is generally pulled toward alcohol items, regardless of the task demands,” Monk said. “Had this happened in the task, we would have observed worse performance when the alcohol items were the distractor items in the task. But this was not the case.”
The study found that participants responded faster when moving alcoholic drinks compared to non-alcoholic drinks in both control and experimental trials. Accuracy was lower for both alcohol and non-alcohol targets in the experimental condition compared to non-alcohol targets in the control condition. In other words, “participants appeared to find it harder to take the director’s perspective into account when the target drink was alcohol (and the distractor was a soft drink),” the researchers said.
The results also showed that people with higher AUDIT scores, a test used to assess alcohol use disorder, had a harder time identifying non-alcohol targets when alcohol distractors were present.
The findings indicate “that the much-touted properties of alcohol to ease social interactions may not be ubiquitous and that alcohol stimuli may actually have paradoxical effects on people’s ability to take another person’s perspective,” Monk told PsyPost.
“While this study was pre-registered and we did power calculations prior to recruitment, this study is relatively small scale and the population is not particularly varied,” she added. “Future research should therefore seek to replicate these findings in larger and more varied groups. It would also be interesting to assess whether people perform differently in this task when they are intoxicated.”
The study, “In people who drink more, facets of theory of mind may be impaired by alcohol stimuli“, was authored by Rebecca L. Monk, Adam W. Qureshi, Graeme Knibb, Lauren McGale, Leonie Nair, Jordan Kelly, Hope Collins, and Derek Heim.