The Frontal Cortex

Drunk on Water

I know I just wrote an article on the power of expectations, but this is ridiculous:

In a series of studies in the 1970s and ’80s, psychologists at the University of Washington put more than 300 students into a study room outfitted like a bar with mirrors, music and a stretch of polished pine. The researchers served alcoholic drinks, most often icy vodka tonics, to some of the students and nonalcoholic ones, usually icy tonic water, to others. The drinks looked and tasted the same, and the students typically drank five in an hour or two.

The studies found that people who thought they were drinking alcohol behaved exactly as aggressively, or as affectionately, or as merrily as they expected to when drunk. “No significant difference between those who got alcohol and those who didn’t,” Alan Marlatt, the senior author, said. “Their behavior was totally determined by their expectations of how they would behave.”

Reminds me of that great Freaks and Geeks episode where they all get drunk on water…


  1. #1 Jillian
    March 4, 2008

    Yup, I loved that episode. :)

  2. #2 Mike P
    March 4, 2008

    Happens with caffeine, too. But what’s interesting–with both the alcohol and the caffeine research–is that you get the social effects (coffee: report feeling more alert, etc.; booze: affectionate, aggressive, etc.), but not the cognitive ones. If you administer cognitive ability tests, they’ll get the same results as if they were uncaffeinated/sober.

  3. #3 Anonymoustache
    March 4, 2008

    More on the same lines….Pricey placebos work better than cheap ones…..

  4. #4 Eric
    March 4, 2008

    Reminds of a time I was traveling in Portugal. We were staying at a campground, and just outside the gates was a small store where you could buy beer and wine. We met a number of Brits, one of whom (like me( had a guitar. We were all drinking and playing music, getting rowdier and louder, and finally one of the Brits said, “This beer tastes awful.” He looked closely at his bottle and went on, “What do you suppose ‘sem alcohol’ means anyway?” It turns out it was Portuguese for “without alcohol.” That sobered them up fast!

  5. #5 Mike Reeves-McMillan
    March 4, 2008

    That’s quite a placebo effect – aka “the power of suggestion”. I seem to recall research that shows that behavior under the influence of various drugs is highly conditioned by expectations – so marijuana users in the Middle East have quite different reactions from those in the West, for example.

  6. #6 Greg
    March 5, 2008

    Not exactly the same thing but it reminds me of this youtube clip….How to get drunk without drinking

  7. #7 Patrick (orthonormal)
    March 5, 2008

    Is that due simply to expectations of being drunk, or rather to a tendency to match the behavior around us (when we assume we’re in the same boat)? I’d predict that if they ran the experiment and kept the vodka-drinkers in one room and the tonic-drinkers in another (and both believed they were drinking alcohol), you might see some placebo effect with the tonic, but the behavior wouldn’t go as far as in the vodka room. It may be mingling with actual drunk people that gets the water-drinkers behaving more drunkenly (and perhaps vice versa).

  8. #8 Chanel Loil
    November 11, 2011

    Major thankies for the blog.Much thanks again. Much obliged.

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