Last Updated on March 31, 2020
It’s not always easy to judge how drunk you are. We’ve all had friends at parties or bars who will insist that they are sober, even when visibly intoxicated. Many of us have had to talk a friend out of driving when they’ve had too many. At times this can seem like a simple case of stubbornness. But what if alcohol actually makes it harder to assess your own personal state?
Recent findings suggest that all of us may be worse judges of our own intoxication than we’d like to think. This article will look at why drunk people often misjudge their consumption, and how you can stay aware of your drinking the next time you’re out with friends.
Peer-Based Perceptions: What the Research Shows
A 2016 study published in BMC Public Health aimed to measure the difference between how drunk individual people think they are, and how drunk they actually are in social drinking environments. The researchers measured participants’ blood alcohol concentration (BAC) while asking them to rate on a scale of 1 to 10:
- How drunk they were
- How extreme their drinking was on that occasion
- Their risk of long-term health problems if they continued to drink at that level
- Their risk of cirrhosis of the liver if they continued to drink at that level
Researchers compared participants’ responses to their BAC readings. They found that people’s perceptions had less to do with their own consumption, and more to do with those around them. If their companions appeared to be more intoxicated than they were, most respondents would underestimate their own level of drunkenness. If others were relatively sober, participants were more likely to perceive their own drinking as excessive. This was especially true between people of the same gender.
Group Ranking and Social Drinking
These results are eye-opening, and may be part of a larger pattern in human behavior. It appears that people have some tendency to rank themselves as members of whatever group they’re in—whether it’s a small group of friends or society in general. This is part of how we determine social norms and figure out how to behave amongst each other.
Unfortunately, this can also make dangerous behaviors feel normal. Spending time in the company of regular binge drinkers can make you unaware that your consumption is becoming unhealthy. You may drink heavily without feeling concerned, because that is what everyone else is doing. On the flipside, it also means that being around sober people can make you self-conscious about drinking. In fact, the researchers who ran this study suggested that placing more sober people into nightlife could help reduce overall alcohol consumption.
How to Stay Mindful of Your Drinking
If people’s judgements of their own sobriety vary with their surroundings, it’s likely that you’ve misjudged your own state at least once. Many people have experienced leaving a social gathering only to suddenly realize they are more impaired than they thought. If this is a concern for you, or someone you care about, here are some strategies that can help:
- Seek out social groups that drink less – If you’d like to keep control over your drinking, it can help to socialize with people who lean towards moderation. If some of your closest friends are heavy drinkers, finding a second group to hang out with sometimes can help create contrast.
- Bring a non-drinking friend with you – The presence of a person who is not partaking in alcohol can help you keep perspective. It also gives you someone who can tell you when you’ve had enough.
- Avoid binging – While moderate drinking can be a perfectly normal part of social events, it is important to know when you are crossing the line to binge drinking. Binging is generally defined as 4-5 drinks or more in a two hour period. Above this level some people are more likely to lose control of their consumption.
- Carry a measuring device – There are a number of mobile breathalyzer devices available on the market. You can use these to read your own BAC level, giving you an objective idea of how drunk you are. Some of these BAC readers can even sync with your smartphone.
If you’re concerned about how much you drink in social situations, and are finding it difficult to cut back, there may be other solutions you haven’t heard of yet. Ria Health is one company that offers alcohol reduction treatment through telemedicine. Our program makes use of a mobile breathalyzer and smartphone tools to help you track your drinking. It also gives you access to coaching, medications, and 24/7 support through an app on your phone. If you’ve been struggling with binge drinking, or just generally consuming more than you’d like, give our program a try. Learn more about how it works here.