A new study shows that people perceive social drinkers and recovering alcoholics as more attractive than heavy drinkers and individuals who abstain from alcohol.
Researchers from Brown, Yale and the University of Houston examined the relationship between participants’ drinking habits and their ratings of attractiveness of other “drinker types”. In the study — which will be published in February 2016 in the Journal of Addictive Behaviors — researchers found that social drinkers were rated significantly more appealing than other types of drinkers, including heavy drinkers, recovering alcoholics and abstainers. The study also found that, in the context of drinking, women tended to rate men more negatively than men rated women, especially in terms of intelligence, with women often classifying heavy drinkers as less intelligent.
“I was interested in how we think about different types of drinkers — how drinkers are perceived,” said Chelsie Young, first author of the study and a graduate student at the University of Houston.
594 undergraduate students viewed images of 25 faces that were arbitrarily matched with drinking information and were asked to rate each face’s appeal based on four categories: intelligence, likability, desire to meet the person and attractiveness.
Heavy drinkers were more likely to rate other heavy drinkers as more appealing overall. Young attributes this to the fact that people prefer those who are similar to them, meaning that people who have similar drinking habits will find one another more attractive.
“Consciously or not, you rate [people as] more appealing because they’re more similar to you,” she said.
This finding uncovers a potential danger in the mutual appeal between heavy drinkers, which, as the article states, “could reinforce problematic drinking.”
Researchers defined the boundary between social and heavy drinking according to guidelines from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Heavy drinking constitutes drinking more than seven drinks per week for women and more than 14 drinks per week for men, according to the NIAAA.
Recovering alcoholics were looked at more favorably than abstainers, which the researchers found especially surprising. For the purpose of the experiment, a recovering alcoholic was defined as someone who abstained from alcohol after a past of heavy drinking.
“We think that maybe people thought more highly of that person who recognized they had a problem and were doing something to change it,” Young said. “That might have given people a more positive view of recovering alcoholics than if we hadn’t included the part about abstaining.”
The recovering alcoholic drinker type was suggested to Young by a friend who was recovering from alcoholism and wanted to find out about the social perceptions of people like him. Young said she realized that drinker prototype literature didn’t contain information about perceptions of recovering alcoholics and thus decided to incorporate it into this study.
Young added that current research literature contains conflicting perceptions of abstainers.
“Some people see them as very responsible,” Young said. “But other research suggests people think they’re stuck up and are different to people who drink.”
Young said that her team hopes to investigate perceptions of motivations to consume alcohol in further studies because of this discrepancy in opinions toward abstainers.
According to Young, habits can be difficult to break after college because, by then, they may form part of one’s identity.
But Bev John, head of research at the University of South Wales School of Psychology, expressed her reservations about the demographics of the study. She noted that the study included a population of drinkers who consumed levels of alcohol below the national average.
“This could clearly impact on perceptions of what constitutes a ‘heavy drinker’ or ‘recovering alcoholic,’” she said.
Young said that she may conduct replications of the study on the East Coast or in universities with a heavier drinking culture.
John also mentioned the cross-cultural invalidity of a study conducted in a country with a higher legal drinking age than the majority of the rest of the world.
Rebecca Persson ’19, among other undergraduates interviewed, was surprised that recovering alcoholics were rated higher than abstainers. She said that she expected abstainers to have higher perceived appeal than recovering alcoholics. But John said she questions whether the undergraduate students sampled would even categorize their peers as authentically “recovering alcoholics” at this age.
According to Yale’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Harm Reduction Initiative, 15 percent of undergraduates reported abstaining from drinking.