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The minimum legal age for drinking alcohol in the US is 21.

Anyone who has tried alcohol knows that it affects how we feel, communicate, and behave. After a couple of drinks, we may be more talkative, flirtier, a tad reckless, sleepy. Some drinkers become mellow, others argumentative. Besides the alcohol itself, what influences those responses?

You’re probably familiar with some of the factors that play into this—like drinking on an empty stomach, while taking medication, or after a highly emotional experience. But in a recent survey by Student Health 101, only one in three of you said that our expectations about drinking—what we believe alcohol will do to us— have a “big influence.” In fact, those expectations are powerful. Working in specially designed “bar labs,” researchers have shown over and over that our expectations influence the ways people behave when drinking.

Just thinking that you’re drinking can get you buzzed

If someone hands you a drink that looks, smells, and tastes alcoholic, chances are you’ll feel its intoxicating effects—even if it contains no alcohol at all. That’s the placebo effect, according to a classic review of studies in the journal Addictive Behaviors. What’s more, those intoxicating effects are in line with your beliefs about what alcohol does to you. If you think alcohol will make you more relaxed and social, that faux-alcoholic drink will make you more relaxed and social. If you expect booze to make you more flirtatious and sexy, you’ll become more receptive to and aware of potential romantic interests.

What if someone gives you an alcoholic drink and tells you it might be nonalcoholic? Chances are you’ll report less of a “high” and behave more soberly than you would if you hadn’t been led to believe it was a placebo. Your motor functions will still be impaired by the alcohol, however. This means that even if you feel less drunk than you expected, you can still be unsafe to drive.

Slurring and clumsy? The placebo effect

How we know about the alcohol placebo effect
Most people have heard about the placebo effect when it comes to medications. In studies, people who think they are taking a medicinal drug, but who are actually taking an inert substance (a “sugar pill”), report that it alleviates their symptoms of illness.

The placebo effect is just as powerful in our experience of recreational drugs. We’ve known this for decades. In the 1970s, researchers opened a specially designed “bar lab,” a drinking setting that allowed them to study the effects of alcohol, at the University of Seattle. This has been replicated at many colleges around the world. In 1981, a review of the literature on alcohol and placebo by G. Alan Marlatt, founder of the original bar lab, established that our response to alcohol is influenced by our expectations.

Drinking fake booze can even make us slur our words and become physically or socially clumsy, provided that we believe the alcohol is real, according to the review in Addictive Behaviors (1981).

Students’ Stories:

“My friends knew I had never drunk alcohol before. They told me they bought a beer for me to try, knowing I wanted to be around people I trusted the first time. I drank the beer and started feeling very drunk. I got hot and became more outspoken than I ever had. Later they told me that it was a nonalcoholic drink. I was confused as to why I [experienced] those effects.”
—Jamie N., Indiana Institute of Technology

“I feel like whenever I have drunk nonalcoholic drinks, it does have [intoxicating] effects. I don’t know if that’s because there is a [certain] mindset when drinking this sophisticated drink.”
—Minna D., Clemson University, South Carolina

Where you drink matters

In familiar places and situations, you may have more tolerance for alcohol than in unfamiliar environments.

If you’re drinking someplace new, you may get more drunk than usual on the same amount of alcohol. This means it’s especially important to pace yourself.

Drinking different types of alcohol—drinks that are new to you—may also lower your tolerance, even if their actual alcohol content is what you’re used to.

Why do you get more drunk somewhere else?

In familiar places, we may have more alcohol tolerance
Your brain doesn’t like surprises (perhaps because, over the course of evolution, surprises have tended to be negative). As a result, your brain rapidly associates specific environments with certain expected experiences.

This affects your drinking. If you typically drink in one place, the cues associated with that place—like the smell of beer, or the sight of bottles glowing behind the bar—become linked with alcohol. These environmental cues tend to make you more tolerant of alcohol in that setting, according to a 2011 study in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Over time the effect may diminish, unless you drink more. (Feeling “less drunk” can mask some effects, like slower reaction times; you may still be unsafe to drive.)

In unfamiliar places, we can get more drunk on the same amount
In contrast, drinking in a new situation tends to lower our tolerance. That’s because the brain doesn’t know what to expect without these familiar environmental cues. This means that if you are drinking somewhere new, it’s especially important to pace yourself. You may get much more intoxicated than you would in your usual setting.

With other drugs, like prescription painkillers and heroin, this can have deadly effects, because the usual dose taken in a new setting can become an overdose.

We may get more drunk on unfamiliar drinks
Drinking different types of alcohol may also lower our tolerance, because the novelty of the unfamiliar taste interferes with the cues that ordinarily make us more tolerant.

Studies have shown that people get more intoxicated on the same quantity of alcohol when the flavors and colors of their drinks are changed, again probably because the new drinks don’t provide the usual cues for tolerance (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2011).

Students’ Stories:

“I was in Brazil drinking [local] wine. The flavor was more watered down than the wine that we sell in the US, so I thought it was not as strong. I thought I could handle it, but I ended up blacking out.”
—Charlie C., University of Maryland

“Sometimes two glasses of wine makes me sick, sometimes I can drink up to four. You can’t really have a number of drinks you say your body can handle, because there’s a lot of variables involved in drinking that people just don’t think about.”
—Kita N., University of Alaska Anchorage

“Beer goggles” work both ways

The more alcohol we drink, the more attractive we rate other people. More surprising, perhaps, is the effect of alcohol on how you see yourself.

Since a placebo drink can produce the same effects, the calmer, sexier, or more sociable person that you think you are when drinking is someone you can also be when you’re sober.

If you find that you can’t free that side of yourself without drinking—or if drinking brings out your less flattering characteristics—it’s important to seek help. See Find out more today.

How does alcohol affect the way you see yourself?

Alcohol amplifies our existing traits
Alcohol also affects how you see yourself. Alcohol does not typically change your personality. Instead, it exaggerates or suppresses your existing traits, particularly the ones that you expect it to enhance or diminish.

If you can be charming and witty after a few drinks, you can be charming and witty sober. It just takes belief in the possibility and an appropriate setting.

If you find that you can’t get there without drinking—or if drinking unleashes your less flattering characteristics—seek help. These are risk factors for serious drinking problems. Your college counseling center is a good place to start.

Alcohol makes us see others as more attractive
Yes, science confirms that alcohol makes potential sex partners look more attractive. In a 2011 study of 80 heterosexual college drinkers, those who were mildly or moderately drunk rated pictures of opposite-sex strangers as more attractive than did those who were sober. Perceived attractiveness increased in parallel with the participants’ blood alcohol concentration (BAC), according to the Journal of Social Psychology. 

Your culture may affect the way you get drunk

Views about alcohol and drinking vary from culture to culture. In the US, alcohol tends to be associated with aggression, researchers say.

Some studies suggest that this belief itself leads to more violent behavior by drunk people. It’s probably more complicated than that, but there’s no doubt that drinking “for courage” can lead to risky behavior.

Could our cultural perspective contribute to aggression?

Two main drinking styles were identified initially in relationship to the geography of Europe, according to a 2003 study published by the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Where drinking is “heavenly or demonic”
The “Northern” or “dry” European countries—like the UK, Ireland, and the Scandinavian nations—traditionally view drinking as a masculine activity that takes place in bars and pubs, not at home. Getting drunk is often the goal, and alcohol tends to be viewed as either heavenly or demonic, according to the geographical “drinking styles” analysis.

Where drinking is part of family life
In contrast, countries like Italy and France see drinking (wine, particularly) as a part of family meals. Obvious drunkenness is discouraged and shamed. In these “wet” or “Southern” drinking cultures, alcohol is seen as a food, which is neither extremely bad nor good; instead, people who become drunk are seen as lacking self-control. Daily drinking is seen as acceptable in moderation.

Where the US sits in all this
The US tends to have a more “Northern” perspective. Here, drinking is commonly associated with aggression. In part as a result, our policies around alcohol tend to swing between moral opposition (Prohibition being the most obvious example) and more permissive. Daily drinking is viewed skeptically, even if it’s moderate.

How our beliefs about alcohol and aggression affect us
Some studies suggest that the “Northern” belief in alcohol increasing aggression itself leads to more violent behavior by drunk people. However, it’s more complicated than that. Additional research has found that these beliefs affect actions only in certain circumstances, and that larger amounts of alcohol increase drinkers’ aggression regardless of their beliefs.

In a 1995 study, alcohol increased aggression in those who thought it would, but only if they were provoked, according to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. That said, there’s no doubt that drinking “for courage” can lead to disinhibited and potentially dangerous behavior. Healthier coping methods include physical activity, getting outdoors, playing or listening to music, and discussing your fears with a counselor or friend.

The more positive effects you expect from alcohol, the greater your risk

The more you believe that alcohol’s effects will be positive—and the less you see the downside—the more likely you are to drink and, especially, to drink heavily.

If you believe that alcohol will make you feel euphoric, or cure your social anxiety, your risk of developing a dependence on alcohol is higher than average, studies show.

Could your expectations get you hooked?

What if you expect alcohol to make you feel good?
People who expect alcohol to make them feel euphoric and less socially inhibited are at higher risk for binge drinking and alcoholism, according to multiple studies.

In a study of over 200 college students, first-year undergraduates who thought drinking would bring on euphoria had higher rates of heavy drinking as fourth-year students, according to the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors (2009).

What if you expect alcohol to “fix” you?
Specific beliefs that alcohol can “cure what ails you” can be particularly harmful. 

In a 2006 study of college students with high levels of social anxiety, those who believed alcohol could relieve their social fear, and who had little faith in their ability to refuse unwanted drinks, drank more alcohol more frequently than the socially anxious students who did not share those beliefs (Addictive Behaviors).

For help cutting back or quitting, see Find out more today on the page.

Taylor Rugg

Taylor Rugg. Third-year undergraduate at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York, double majoring in “war, warfare, and the soldier experience,” and writing and rhetoric; Student Health 101 Student Advisory Board 2015–16; age 21.

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Maia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist and author, most recently of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction (St. Martin’s Press, 2016). In 2015, she was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship by Open Society Foundations, an organization developing criminal justice practices that advance public safety and fairness.