Drinking in a group reduces risks

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New research has revealed that people who drink alcohol in a group assess risk better and are less likely to make mistakes than those who drink alone.

Researchers from the departments of psychology at London South Bank University and the University of Kent discovered that although a moderate intake of alcohol causes individuals to make errors, these don’t occur if people reach decisions as a group.

London South Bank University’s Dr Daniel Frings - one of the principal researchers on the project - said: ‘Alcohol consumption is often a social business, yet surprisingly little research has examined how the dynamics of social groups change when their members are drinking.

“People’s vigilance and ability to assess risk is reduced if they consume a moderate amount of alcohol alone, but our research revealed people may be less vulnerable to this effect if they work with others. A group decision appears to reduce the impairing effect of alcohol.”

For the study, 286 participants with normal drinking habits were tested, either alone or in four-person groups, after consuming either alcohol up to 0.08 blood alcohol content (the equivalent of the UK drink-drive limit) or a drink they thought was alcohol but was not. They were then asked to do a ‘vigilance task’ that involved keeping a mental tally of the number of times the word ‘the’ was said in a recorded passage.

Alcohol significantly impaired the performance of people who did this task alone. But when they had to agree the tally as a group, alcohol had no effect on their performance. Groups that consumed alcohol made significantly fewer errors than individuals who consumed alcohol, and were equally accurate as groups that had not consumed any alcohol.

To identify why this might be, the researchers tested different statistical models of how groups agreed their tally. Regardless of whether they drank alcohol or not, groups reached decisions by homing in on the area where they had most consensus, ignoring opinions that were very different. The researchers concluded this was consistent with their theory that, even after drinking some alcohol, people in groups can monitor one another to correct mistakes or avoid risks. People drinking on their own do not have the benefit of others’ judgements and perspectives to correct their errors.

Professor Dominic Abrams from the University of Kent led the research, and remarked: “Our research suggests there is safety in numbers when people drink moderately. More research is needed to see whether this disappears after a greater amount of alcohol, and when other things happen among groups of drinkers that might be more dangerous than when people are alone.”



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