Bibi Ergo Sum – I have drunk therefore I am

Recent research at the University of Liverpool has been exploring the effects of placebo-alcohol. This work suggests it is not just the pharmacological properties of alcohol that cause intoxication and its consequences.

In an initial study researchers administered drinks to participants that were manipulated to taste and smell like vodka and lemonade (but contained no alcohol) and then measured participant’s alcohol craving, feelings of intoxication, and cognitive functioning. Compared to when participants drank lemonade (with no vodka taste!) placebo-alcohol increased alcohol craving and feelings of light-headedness. Moreover, it also produced significant impairments in cognitive functioning, previously argued to only be disrupted by moderate alcohol doses.

In a follow up study they also explored the impact of environmental context on placebo effects by having half the participants complete the study in the University of Liverpool’s bar laboratory. The effects of placebo-alcohol on craving and light-headedness were replicated and they also found placebo-alcohol induced increased beer consumption when participants were invited to sample beers (known as the alcohol priming effect). Interestingly, there was no additive effect of being in the bar environment, although those in the bar believed they had consumed more alcohol than those who were in a standard lab.

So what does this mean? Firstly, it challenges the dominant view that binge drinking is entirely the result of alcohol impairing our ability to control behaviour while simultaneously increasing desire for alcohol; these two studies have shown actual alcohol is not necessary to do this, the belief that alcohol has been consumed is sufficient.  Secondly, it shows how powerful conditioned responses are, when consuming something that tastes and smell like alcohol we respond in a way that is consistent with our conditioning history. Finally, it reveals a harm free way of getting drunk when finances are tight (although fooling yourself into believing a placebo drink you prepared contains alcohol offers its own unique challenges).

A contribution by Dr Paul Christiansen – University of Liverpool.

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