In a study with pandemic implications, researchers report that strangers who drink alcohol together may keep their distance initially – but get closer physically when they become intoxicated. No previous study has tested the effects of alcohol use on social distancing, the researchers say. They report the new discoveries in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To test how social familiarity influences drinking behavior, the researchers asked the study subjects to each bring a friend who would also participate in the study. The 212 healthy young social drinkers were assigned to different experimental conditions.
“In half of the cases, the participants drank with a friend,” said Catharine Fairbairn, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who led the research. “In the other half, they drank with the friend of another participant – a stranger.”
The pairs were assigned to consume alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages.
The team gave people in the experimental condition enough alcohol to bring their blood alcohol levels to levels associated with intoxication. The researchers filmed the interactions of each pair.
“We measured the distance between individuals via machine learning methods that detect the hands, arms, legs and head position for each person in the video,” said study co-author Nigel Bosch, professor of information science and educational psychology at U. . of I. who developed the method. “We used a bit of geometry to transform the pixel coordinates of people detected in the video into actual distances based on objects of known size visible in the video.”
Friends tended to get closer to each other whether or not they drank alcohol, Fairbairn said.
“But the participants interacting with a stranger only came close to this individual if they were intoxicated. The physical distance between these pairs decreased by about 1 centimeter in every three minute interval,” he said. she declared.
The team found that those who drank soft drinks with strangers did not come close to each other significantly during the experiment.
“This study shows that over time, alcohol reduces the physical distance between people who are not yet known,” said lead author of the study Laura Gurrieri, a psychology researcher at the University of I “This finding is particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic because it suggests that alcohol could facilitate transmission of the virus and prevent adherence to social distancing guidelines.”
Fairbairn said the participants’ ability to get close to each other was somewhat limited as they were seated across from each other at a table, and the study was conducted in a quiet and spacious lab and not in a bar.
“People would probably still get close to each other in a crowded bar with loud music compared to our lab environment,” she said. “This should be the subject of another study.”
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Material provided by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau. Original written by Diana Yates. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.