You Can't Blame Vodka Red Bulls for Your Shitty Behaviour

Research shows mixing energy drinks and alcohol has a placebo effect, making you feel and act drunker than you are.
June 23, 2017, 1:53pm
Photo via Flickr user Gerardo Lazzari

Most of us probably picture a certain type of night out when we think of mixing energy drinks and alcohol. As many have pointed out before, there's something distinctly "basic bro" about wanting that extra jolt of energy with your drunkenness.

If you've ever pounded back a Jagerbomb or a vodka Red Bull (seemingly the reigning champ in the boozy energy drink wars), chances are you were having the kind of night that doesn't lend itself to working in the morning. And you don't like cocaine. The caffeine and other stimulants are surely going to help you keep on partying long after you'd normally have started crashing. That's the theory anyway.

Then there's the reputation for danger. Not long ago we were told vodka Red Bulls are basically the same as cocaine, and there's the ongoing fear of heart attacks, although that seems to be more of an energy drink thing than an alcohol thing.

There are actual studies that suggest that mixing booze and energy drinks is legitimately dangerous. People who add energy drinks to their alcohol are twice as likely to experience or commit sexual assault, have an alcohol-related car accident, or need medical treatment than those who don't.

But if you think all this is the drink's fault, science says it's not that simple. That one last drink did not make you do it! A new study suggests that your drink would be essentially the same if it was just alcohol. The differences in levels of intoxication are probably all in your head.

The University of British Columbia's Dr. Yann Cornil conducted tests to see why people who drink energy drinks mixed with alcohol were statistically more likely to get into trouble than people drinking alcoholic beverages free of energy drinks. From the outside, the difference doesn't make sense. "Overall, there's not enough strong evidence that compared to just drinking alcohol alone, adding energy drinks to alcohol has a causal impact on drunkenness and drunk behaviour," says Cornil.

So why would people who drink energy drinks in their alcohol be so much more likely to end up in these awful situations? For one, those stats only observe correlation, so Cornil needed to do more tests to find out if the people who choose to drink alcohol and energy drinks just happen to also be the kinds of people who commit sexual assault and drive drunk.

Cornil looked to existing research on alcohol use and drunkenness. "We've known for a while, mostly in pharmacological research, that when people drink alcohol and they feel drunk, and they behave in an impulsive way or a disinhibited way, it might be due to the presence of alcohol in their blood, the physiological effect, but it might also be due, in part, to psychological effects," he says. "They are drunk because they believe that they should be drunk after drinking alcohol."

Testing this was a fairly simple process. A random group of people consumed a cocktail made up of vodka, Red Bull, and fruit juice. Some were told they were drinking a "vodka-Red Bull cocktail," while others were told they had either a "vodka cocktail" or an "exotic fruit cocktail." As expected, those who were told about the Red Bull behaved more intoxicated and reported feeling more intoxicated than members of the other two groups. Things like high-risk behaviour and sexual self-confidence went up more dramatically for that group, meaning that the added drunkenness wasn't brought on by the chemical reaction of mixing of Red Bull and vodka, but was rather something brought on psychologically.

Cornil suggests that this is in part because of the experiences we hope for when we drink. "There is research on placebo effects which suggests that placebo effects work as long as you desire them to work. Like when you take a pill, you want a cure. It's both your belief and your desire that drives the effectiveness of the pill," he says. "Same thing for alcohol. You desire to be uninhibited, you desire to be more confident, and you believe that you're going to be disinhibited and confident. And that's why alcohol works as a placebo."

None of this lets energy drinks off the hook either though, says Cornil. On the contrary, he suggests that we expect certain effects from mixing energy drinks with alcohol precisely because companies like Red Bull and Monster market their energy products in ways that instil those expectations in us. "These beliefs come from somewhere," says Cornil. Red Bull said it would "give you wings," while Monster encourages you to "unleash the beast."

So if we believe that alcohol will give us certain freedoms, freedoms that we want, that belief is simply stronger when energy drinks are added in.

Interestingly, the study didn't find explanations for some of the more troubling statistics.

"The more people feel drunk, the less likely they are to drive," says Cornil, whose own study backed this up. "We found that people believing that they drank vodka and Red Bull took more risks at a gambling task, for instance, so why is it that they don't take more risks when it comes to driving?" he asks. "We did find some effects on sexual self-confidence, but not on our questions measuring sexual aggressiveness."

So why are people who mix booze and energy drinks experiencing twice as many negative consequences, including things like sexual assault and drunk driving?

One possible explanation is that people are less likely to answer certain questions honestly—sexual assault and drunk driving are socially deplorable, and it would probably be pretty embarrassing to admit to a researcher that you feel like you would continue to try to engage in sex even if your partner said no (this is one of the questions that subjects were asked).

Regardless of the answer, it's not the energy drinks themselves that are causing this, but rather our willingness to believe that they fuck us up that much more when we're drinking. In other words, if you're going to do awful things while you're drunk, that's on you, not your energy drink.

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