Researchers Find Link Between Alcohol Use, Perceived Physical Attractiveness

Bowdring against a teal blue background

Much of American social life involves alcohol — champagne toasts at weddings, a gift of wine at housewarming parties, happy hours after work — but very little research has been conducted about why people drink and how drinking affects perceptions of others. A new analysis by Pitt psychologists takes a closer look at those questions and offers the field next steps for answering them.

“Alcohol is about as social a drug as there is,” said Michael Sayette, a Pitt professor of psychology who studies substance abuse. “And yet, the vast majority of research that’s been conducted to understand alcohol’s effects has been done with people studied in isolation.”

That usually means studying drinkers in a lab while they look at photos or drink by themselves. The method allows for a lot of control, but “that’s obviously not how we perceive people in real life,” said Molly Bowdring, a graduate student in the clinical psychology PhD program who works in Sayette’s lab.

In addition, the widely held social phenomenon that drinking makes others seem more attractive has not yet been systematically reviewed, to the Pitt team’s knowledge.

So, to settle the score, Bowdring and Sayette did some research on the research.

Based on available studies to date, their paper, published in the journal Addiction, is believed to be the first systemic review that establishes the strength and consistency of alcohol’s association with perceived physical attractiveness. It also provides suggestions for avenues to pursue in future addiction research.

“Any bartender could tell you about beer goggles,” said Sayette, but there has been very little research on it, and it’s difficult to predict who might be most susceptible to those effects and what those answers could reveal about addiction. This study is a preliminary step in finding those answers.

Bowdring, the first author, found a small yet significant positive association between alcohol and perceived opposite-sex attractiveness among heterosexual people. There was no statistically significant alcohol association for same-sex attractiveness.

A long history of addiction research has tried to figure out why people struggle with drug dependency in an attempt to pinpoint opportunities for prevention and intervention. Part of this work has focused on the rewarding effects that people experience while drinking, including reducing social anxiety and enhancing social bonding.

As the team continues to examine alcohol and its rewarding social effects, a major goal for Bowdring is to establish testing methods that are closer to what people experience in the real world. She wants to better balance controlled experiments in the lab with naturalistic conditions. Showing participants video instead of static images is the next step, she said.

Another new research focus is looking at interactions between people who have all been drinking, as opposed to the current standard, which typically only administers alcohol to the perceiver, not the target. “In the real world, you typically have both people drinking in a bar setting,” she said.

“If we want to better understand why this social drug is causing problems in the world at times — and for whom — then we believe bringing social context into our labs is very important,” Sayette added. “Now that we’ve identified that alcohol seems to affect attractiveness perceptions, it opens up a whole set of questions that researchers can pursue.”