If you've been trying to scale back your bar tab to little success, a new study has some sobering news: Your drunk-ass friends are unwittingly sabotaging you. Led by Dr. Simon Moore, researchers at the University of Cardiff have found that how drunk you feel on a given a night out is dependent on the people around you. This suggests that if you're surrounded by heavy drinkers, you might order a lot more gin and tonics without realizing it.
The study measured the breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) of 1,862 people in the UK who were out at bars in four different locations across 12 months and also asked a smaller subset of those participants to self-assess how drunk they were via survey. For each location and time cohort, the researchers created rankings of all the participants based on their BrAC against which the surveyed individuals were then compared. Interestingly, they found that if someone responded to the survey that they were only slightly drunk, their answer had less to do with the actual results of their breathalyzer test than their relative ranking to the people who were in the area around the same time they were.
Over the phone, Moore explained that our environment has a lot to do with our perception of how drunk we think we are. If you're around people who are slamming back Jell-O shots, you're going to think you're a lot more virtuously sober in comparison even if you are actually very wasted. Conversely, if you're hanging out with a bunch of sober people, you're likely to feel like you're tanked when juxtaposing yourself against everyone else.
"As places change, the normal drinking behavior also changes," he told me. "If you took someone from one bar location and put them in a different location what we would predict is that their perceptions of their own level of drunkenness would change. Not because [their BrAC] has physically changed, but because those around them have changed."
In other words, if you're resolute to drink less—either for your health or your wallet—it could help to bring some sober friends along the next time you go out. And Moore says that city planning that focuses on diversifying locations where bars dominate the landscape could reduce levels of harmful alcohol consumption on a larger scale.
"If you go into an area where a lot of people are drinking heavily, it seems to be self-perpetuating. You tend to want to drink more to fit in, I suppose," he said. "What I argue is that we change the character of these environments. Rather than have areas that are exclusively based on the consumption of alcohol, we might want to break it up a little bit with social venues where alcohol isn't available. What that would do is introduce a mixture of people—some who are drinking but also some who are sober—and we would hope to see a reduction in risk-taking and heavy alcohol use."