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Just Thinking Your Drink Has Red Bull in It Makes You Feel Drunker

The power of placebo.

by Jesse Hicks
May 12 2017, 10:45pm

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We already know that mixing energy drinks with alcohol can, in scientific terms, "turn you into a belligerent fool." Combining the two can lead people to underestimate the effects of alcohol, leaving them in an "awake-drunk" state in which they're more likely to injure themselves.

But do you really need the caffeine from an energy drink to start making bad decisions? New research suggests not: Simply telling a young man that his alcoholic beverage contains Red Bull can make him feel more intoxicated and increase feelings of daring and self-confidence (a great combo for belligerence).

"When alcohol is mixed with an energy drink and people are aware of it, they feel like they're more intoxicated simply because the marketing says they should feel that way," Yann Cornil, the study's lead author and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business, said in a statement. The company's slogan, after all, is "Red Bull gives you wings."

The study describes a remarkable (and kind of disturbing!) placebo effect. Previous studies have pointed to the danger of mixing alcohol and energy drinks, including twice the risk of being involved in a car accident and twice the risk of committing or experiencing sexual assault, according to the authors. Yet when people are not told they're imbibing energy drinks, there seems to be little effect on how intoxicated they feel.

That suggests Red Bull's "wings" are largely the product of marketing. To test that theory, researchers provided 154 young men with a cocktail of vodka, Red Bull, and fruit juice. (The study remains silent on the effect of tiny umbrellas.) The drinks were labeled as either using the familiar brand name "vodka-Red Bull cocktail" or not, eg "vodka cocktail" or "exotic cocktail."

The researchers had the guys complete a series of computer tasks to measure their perceived wastedness and assess their attitudes. These tests showed that participants who'd downed the "vodka-Red Bull cocktail" thought they were significantly more drunk than the guys who had the other cocktails—especially so if they expected that kind of an effect. Similarly, they showed greater risk-taking behavior and sexual self-confidence. In other words, the more stoked they were about a vodka-Red Bull, the more they became the kind of person you'd expect to be stoked about a vodka-Red Bull.

If there's a silver lining to this story—and please let there be one—it's that emphasizing the presence of Red Bull made participants say they were less likely to drive. "It seems that drunk-driving education is working enough to make people think hard about driving when they are feeling drunk," Aradhna Krishna, study co-author and marketing professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, said in a statement.

The researchers suggest that energy drink manufacturers should be prohibited from advertising their products as having powerful disinhibiting effects. That seems unlikely, given that "our product will make you feel cool and alive" covers just about every commercial ever made. And now, thanks to science, we can say that Red Bull really does make people feel less inhibited and more confident—as long as they think they're drinking it. Chalk one up for the power of marketing, we guess?

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