Researchers from the University of Missouri in Columbia set out to examine the extent to which drinking alters our personality.
The new study – published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science – suggests that drinking does not change our behavior as dramatically as we think.
The first author of the study is psychological scientist Rachel Winograd, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and of the Missouri Institute of Mental Health.
Winograd and colleagues gathered 156 participants who were asked to fill in a survey detailing their typical drinking patterns and reported on how they perceive their “sober” and “drunk” personalities.
Participants were then invited to the laboratory in groups of three to four friends of the same gender, where researchers took breathalyzer measurements at baseline, as well as weight and height measurements. A breathalyzer is a device that measures blood alcohol levels using a person’s breath.
Then, half of the participants consumed alcohol over a period of 15 minutes. They drank vodka and mixers in combinations tailored to their body weight, designed to raise the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to approximately .09.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it is illegal to drive across the United States when BAC levels are .08 or higher, as this is the official level at which drivers are considered to be intoxicated.
After 15 minutes, the groups participated in a series of fun activities meant to engage certain personality traits and bring out specific behaviors.
Participants had their personalities measured at two points during the study, while outside observers video-recorded their behavior. The recordings were later used to carry out assessments of each individual’s personality.
Personality did not change that much according to external observers
The self-assessment carried out by the participants confirmed the usual signs of drunkenness. According to the participants, drinking changed their personality across all of the five traits as defined by the classic Five Factor Model: neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, intellect, and conscientiousness.
The participants reported feeling less conscientious, less open to new experiences, and less agreeable, while they felt more extroverted and more emotionally stable.
However – and this is the interesting finding of the study – the outside observers saw far fewer differences between the participants’ sober and drunk “personalities.” The observers’ assessment and the self-reported one concurred on only one aspect: extraversion.
Those who consumed alcohol received higher scores on three sub-aspects of extraversion: gregariousness, assertiveness, and activity levels.
Lead author Rachel Winograd further details the findings:
“We were surprised to find such a discrepancy between drinkers’ perceptions of their own alcohol-induced personalities and how observers perceived them. Participants reported experiencing differences in all factors of the Five Factor Model of personality, but extraversion was the only factor robustly perceived to be different across participants in alcohol and sober conditions.”
While the study cannot explain the cause for the results found, the authors speculate that the discrepancies between drinkers’ self-perception and the observers’ evaluation can be put down to a difference in perspective.
“We believe both the participants and raters were both accurate and inaccurate – the raters reliably reported what was visible to them and the participants experienced internal changes that were real to them but imperceptible to observers,” Winograd explains.
The study’s first author also shares some of their directions for future research:
“Of course, we also would love to see these findings replicated outside of the lab – in bars, at parties, and in homes where people actually do their drinking. Most importantly, we need to see how this work is most relevant in the clinical realm and can be effectively included in interventions to help reduce any negative impact of alcohol on people’s lives.”