Urban legend says that alcohol is a social icebreaker - and we want to believe, given our preference for commercials where impossibly attractive young people converge on some beach and all have a fantastic time, which is in contrast to actual beer gatherings where a lot of fights and arrests occur.(1)

Want to look like this?  Drink alcohol. Credit: Shutterstock

But moderate alcohol can boost social bonding, according to a recent paper in Psychological Science.  The paper claims that alcohol dampens negative feelings as well.

We have all seen people who have more negative feelings when they drink, getting depressed or even in fights. That was not moderate drinking, alcohol researchers argue.  What is moderate?  This is social science, not applied, moderate is a moving target and 'further research will be necessary' to figure out what moderate means. But regardless of definitions they say they have a benefit over other studies on alcohol - most of those other ones had people drinking in isolation.  Not all, but this one is far more rigorous than the one 'showing' that conservatives have the mental and moral capacity of drunk people because they surveyed drunk people outside a bar.

20 groups of strangers (composed of three males, one female and two males,  two males and one female, or three females) were assigned one of three different beverage scenarios - alcoholic drinks, non-alcoholic, or a placebo.  The alcohol was vodka and cranberry juice (less for women) while the placebo was 'smeared' with alcohol to seem less like a placebo. Each group had three drinks over 36 minutes and they recorded the interactions and then analyzed them using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and the Grouptalk model for speech behavior to make their determinations.

Strangers given free alcohol like each other more, they found - but it wasn't just the perception of free, since the placebo group that only thought they got alcohol had fewer "true" smiles under the FACS metric.  They determined that alcohol increased the likelihood of 'golden' moments where all three group members smile simultaneously. The alcohol groups also likely reported greater social bonding than did the non-drinking groups and were more likely to have all three members stay involved in the discussion.

Men, what about this picture makes you feel social?  The alcohol, of course. Credit: Shutterstock.

"By demonstrating the sensitivity of our group formation paradigm for studying the rewarding effects of alcohol," said Michael A. Sayette, lead author and professor of psychology at University of Pittsburgh, "we can begin to ask questions of great interest to alcohol researchers—Why does alcohol make us feel better in group settings? Is there evidence to suggest a particular participant may be vulnerable to developing a problem with alcohol?"

On question one, it showed that people given alcohol felt better for a short time around strangers. On question two, there are a lot of other variables, like when they get out of college and have a bad day at work, etc. rather than knowing they are in a psychology study.

Citation: Michael A. Sayette, Kasey G. Creswell, John D. Dimoff, Catharine E. Fairbairn, Jeffrey F. Cohn, Bryan W. Heckman, Thomas R. Kirchner, John M. Levine, and Richard L. Moreland, 'Alcohol and Group Formation A Multimodal Investigation of the Effects of Alcohol on Emotion and Social Bonding',  Psychological Science, August 2012; vol. 23, 8: pp. 869-878,  doi:10.1177/0956797611435134


(1) California is not the only place where this occurs, this guy in Tennessee was arrested for for calling 911 to get a ride for beer, but we have more than our share. Drunken domestic violence is also different; this woman was arrested for slapping her boyfriend for buying the wrong beer, which means he called police instead of bringing the pimp hand down.  Good luck getting away with that in Tennessee.