The science of beer goggles

Words by Theodora Sutcliffe

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Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder

Beer goggles are officially a thing. So much of a thing, in fact, that they even feature in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, defined as “the supposed influence of alcohol on one's visual perception, whereby one is sexually attracted to people who would not otherwise be appealing.”

And, where lexicographers venture, scientists boldly go. Mountains of research has been done into the beer goggles phenomenon, and not only for its appeal to tabloid news desks, honest.

Neuroscientists, psychologists and other scientists have explored the beer goggles effect. One team dressed a robot zebrafish as a lady zebrafish and got the gentlemen zebrafish drunk to see what would happen. (Conclusion? Zebrafish benefit from Dutch courage, but don't suffer beer goggles.)

By contrast, an addiction specialist who spends most of her lab time getting fruit flies high on alcohol and/or cocaine discovered that drunk male fruit flies will try and hump pretty much anything with wings, including other male fruit flies. (Another scientist found that male fruit flies who experience sexual rejection are more likely to hit the sauce than male fruit flies which got laid, suggesting sex and booze are very closely linked.)

And, err, let's not forget optometry professor Nathan Efron, who accepted PR gold from opticians Bausch & Lomb to construct probably pop science's most bullshit equation ever, the beer goggles formula. Formula here.

Booze and the brain

There are three main theories about the science of beer goggles. The first is alcohol myopia, the idea that booze blocks a part of our brain which might otherwise choose not to plank on that balcony railing / order a fourth Zombie / hit on that model-tall lady with the choker at adam's apple height / take a lift from those chaps who swear they're a minicab.

The second is alcohol expectancy - when we know we're drinking, we expect that what our society has taught us happens when we drink will happen. So: if we expect to start a fight, we'll start a fight, if we expect to get giggly, we'll get the giggles, and if we expect to wake up in bed with someone looking like Hulk Hogan after a rough night, we'll be doing the walk of shame at 6am.

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The third theory attributes the beer goggles effect to a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. According to this, alcohol stimulates the nucleus accumbens, which, as well as releasing dopamines, also helps determine facial attractiveness and handles desire.

Yet, as scientist Robert Leeman pointed out, after a groundbreaking study proving that students are more likely to engage in risky sex after drinking alcohol (no shit, Sherlock!), the boundaries between the brain and the mind aren't clear. Do students have risky sex because alcohol turns a switch in the brain? Or does booze just provide a convenient excuse for something they'd like to do anyway?

Faking it

Beer goggles research might sound like something any numpty could turn their hand to. Yet scientists go to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of their studies - a team at London's South Bank University even built a pub in a lab to replicate a more natural drinking environment.

And any good scientific study on beer goggles has to have a placebo - something to give subjects that make them think they are drinking alcohol when they're not. And, no, that's not Becks Blue, or Kaliber.

One group served chilled vodka-tonic with a choice of blackcurrant or lime cordial (and removed the vodka from some tonics); another opted for chilled vodka, tonic and lime cordial (or just tonic and lime); a third, who was French, mixed up a cocktail including grapefruit, lime, mint, grenadine and diluted ethanol, and sprayed the rim of the non-alcoholic glasses with booze for extra impact.

All in the mind?

Beer goggles gags, like mother-in-law jokes, might be the preserve of male comedians, but women actually wear beer goggles more often. Both men and women got less good at distinguishing which faces were more symmetrical (AKA more attractive) after drinking, but women performed notably worse. (One study suggests that women who drink tend to be worse than women who don't drink at assessing facial symmetry even when they're sober - go figure!)

Men's main problem? In news that will surprise few women, psychologist Teresa Treat discovered that straight men found it much harder to distinguish between women looking friendly and women looking sexually interested after a couple of shandies.

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And then there's the expectancy effect. Several studies have found that people who think they've been drinking - even if they've been drinking a non-alcoholic cocktail rather than an alcoholic one - find themselves more attractive and interesting.

Even just the idea of drinking can affect attraction. One group of scientists exposed straight men to a series of words suggesting alcohol, and a control group to a non-suggestive set of words. The men who believed alcohol would improve their sexual performance found women more attractive when they had been subliminally exposed to alcohol words; men who believed alcohol would spoil their evening found women less attractive when they'd been subliminally exposed to alcohol words.

But it could be worse

Beer goggles may have been a bane of human society since some hot young primate in a cave first stumbled across fermented fruit and found him/herself mysteriously drawn to the greying ape with the missing teeth and gammy leg. Yet it could be a whole lot worse.

Back in the 80s, a type of Australian Jewel Beetle - the male type, natch - put itself in danger of extinction because of a fatal attraction to a beer bottle. The brown, shiny, textured surface so closely resembled a super-hawt lady Australian Jewel Beetle that males would, quite literally, hump the bottle to death - they continued, scientists observed, even while ants chewed on their exposed genitalia.

The beer firm pulled the beetle-endangering stubbies from circulation. For humans, we guess, there's always alternating drinks with water...

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