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Why Even Just the Smell of Alcohol Can Make Us Lose All Self-Control

According to the findings of a new study from Edge Hill University, smelling alcohol can make it harder for people to inhibit their behaviour.

by Phoebe Hurst
Mar 21 2016, 1:00pm

You had such high hopes for the evening. A quick pint at the pub before going home to download podcasts and eat leftover pasta. But that singular pint so quickly morphed into two. Then three. Then Uber rides and slurred DMCs and wildly irresponsible rounds of midweek Long Island iced teas.

Here's something to think about as you try to drown that hangover with melted cheese: it might not be the influence of your enabling mates or those 2-for-1 cocktail offers that cause you lose willpower around alcohol. It could be the smell.

According to new research from Edge Hill University in the UK, even just smelling alcohol can make it harder for people to control their behaviour.

Published in the Psychopharmacology journal, the computer-based study saw participants wear a face mask laced either with alcohol or a non-alcoholic solution. They were then asked to press a button when the letter "K" or a picture of a beer bottle appeared on the screen.

The researchers then measured the number of times participants pressed the button at the wrong time, calling these slips a "false alarm." According to the study, false alarms indicate a reduction in a person's ability to inhibit behaviour when expected to. Classic drunk move, then.

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The number of "false alarms" was higher among participants wearing the alcohol-laced face mask. Researchers say that this is interesting because previous studies often focus on how alcohol consumption is shaped by visual cues, environment, or who we're with when drinking. Now, it seems that smell may also have something to do with the rate at which you knock back those gin and tonics.

Dr Rebecca Monk, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University explained: "This research is a first attempt to explore other triggers, such as smell, that may interfere with people's ability to refrain from a particular behaviour. For example, during the experiment it seemed that just the smell of alcohol was making it harder for participants to control their behaviour to stop pressing a button.

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Monk and her team also hope that the study's findings can be used to help treat alcohol addiction. Fellow researcher Derek Heim added: "This research is an early laboratory based effort that, whilst promising, needs to be replicated in real world settings to further its validity. Our hope is that by increasing our understanding of how context shapes substance-use behaviours, we will be able to make interventions more sensitive to the different situations in which people consume substances."

If you're aiming for a quiet night, it might be worth taking a nose peg to the bar.