If you’ve ever heard of the concept of “beer goggles,” you might be familiar with the idea that alcohol can make people see others as more attractive than they really are. But is there any scientific truth to this? A recent study sought to determine the real relationship between alcohol and perceptions of attractiveness. The findings, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, challenge the common belief that alcohol distorts men’s judgments of physical attractiveness and suggest that its effects on mate choices might be unrelated to perceptual alterations.
Understanding how alcohol affects our social behavior and perceptions is not only intriguing from a scientific perspective but also has practical implications. It could help therapists and counselors provide more informed guidance to individuals dealing with issues related to alcohol and social interactions. Moreover, it may offer insights into the factors that contribute to risky behaviors, such as risky sexual practices, in the context of alcohol consumption.
Despite the widespread belief in “beer goggles,” the scientific literature on this topic has provided mixed and inconclusive results. Some studies have suggested that alcohol can indeed influence perceptions of attractiveness, while others have found no such effect. This inconsistency in prior research led to a need for more rigorous and controlled studies to clarify the relationship between alcohol and attractiveness perception.
“Experimental tests of alcohol’s effects have historically been limited to studying people drinking alcohol in a lab, by themselves. This diverges significantly from the social drinking experiences that most people who participate in these studies are used to and has limited our understanding of alcohol’s effects on social experiences,” said study author Molly A. Bowdring, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Stanford Prevention Research Center (affiliated with University of Pittsburgh at the time of this study).
“It is important to understand alcohol’s effects on social experiences, as it helps to clarify why some people find alcohol rewarding and why alcohol can contribute to negative social consequences (e.g., saying something you regret the next day or something more serious, like risky sex).”
The researchers conducted a study involving 36 participants, all in their early twenties. These participants were grouped into 18 pairs of friends who regularly drank together. To ensure the accuracy of their findings, the researchers meticulously controlled several variables.
The study had two sessions: one where participants consumed alcohol and another where they drank a non-alcoholic beverage. This approach allowed the researchers to compare their perceptions when under the influence of alcohol and when sober. Importantly, neither the participants nor the researchers knew which session involved alcohol to prevent any bias.
The researchers carefully measured the participants’ blood alcohol concentrations (BrACs) at various time points after consuming alcohol. They also assessed the number of days participants drank per week, the quantity of alcohol they consumed on each occasion, and the length of time they had known their drinking partner. Furthermore, the participants rated their feelings of closeness with their friends on a scale from 0 (not at all close) to 10 (very close).
To evaluate the impact of alcohol on attractiveness perceptions, the participants were shown images and short video clips of 16 individuals. After viewing each stimulus, the participants were prompted to rate the perceived physical attractiveness of the person. They provided these ratings on a scale ranging from 1 (very unattractive) to 10 (very attractive). The researchers collected data on how participants rated the attractiveness of others while under the influence of alcohol and while sober.
In addition to this task, the participants were presented with a screen displaying images of all 16 targets from that particular session. They were then asked to select four targets whom they would most want to interact with in a future study.
Contrary to the widely held belief that alcohol induces “beer goggles,” the study found no significant difference in perceptions of physical attractiveness between the alcohol and non-alcohol sessions. In other words, alcohol didn’t make participants see others as more attractive than when they were sober.
These findings held steady even when considering various factors like the participants’ sexual orientation, the facial expressions and motion of the individuals being assessed, and the participants’ alcohol expectancies (what they expected alcohol to do to them).
However, when participants were asked to select individuals they would be interested in interacting with in the future, the effects of alcohol emerged. Those who had consumed alcohol were significantly more likely to choose the most attractive individuals as their potential future interaction partners. This suggests that alcohol might influence not how we perceive attractiveness but rather our willingness to approach and interact with attractive people.
“It’s useful to be aware that alcohol can alter our social goals and motivations,” Bowdring told PsyPost. “Considering goals for social interactions and recognizing that alcohol may alter these interactions (in ways that can end up being harmful) can be helpful prior to entering a social setting where alcohol may be consumed.”
Like any scientific study, this one also had its limitations. It’s important to note that the sample size was relatively small, and the study had to be prematurely terminated due to external circumstances (COVID-19), which may have influenced the results. Additionally, the study mainly focused on heterosexual individuals and their friends, leaving room for future research to explore the effects of alcohol on attractiveness perceptions among a more diverse range of people.
“Alcohol may have its greatest effect on person perception when people have a real opportunity to interact with the person being perceived,” Bowdring said. “In the present study, we told participants (before completing attractiveness ratings) that they may be invited to participate in a future study with the people they were rating.”
“However, it’s possible that our participants didn’t keep that top of mind when providing attractiveness ratings (which may be why we didn’t find a ‘beer goggles’ effect) and that alcohol’s effect on person perception only arose when participants were reminded of interaction potential when they were later asked to actually select the individuals with whom they would want to interact (which may be why we did find a ‘liquid courage’ effect). Future research that incorporates even more realism, by, for example, setting up real opportunity for participants to interact, should get us closer to better understanding how these processes play out in natural drinking experiences.”
The study, “Beer Goggles or Liquid Courage? Alcohol, Attractiveness Perceptions, and Partner Selection Among Men“, was authored by Molly A. Bowdring and Michael A. Sayette.