Alcohol Myopia Definition
Alcohol myopia theory states that alcohol intoxication (getting drunk) decreases the amount of information that individuals can process. Consequently, when people are intoxicated, the range of information that they can pay attention to is restricted, such that intoxicated people are able to pay attention to only some of the information that could be registered by a sober person. In addition, their ability to fully analyze the information that they have registered is impaired.
Alcohol Myopia Background and History
When asked about the effect of alcohol consumption on behavior, most people can probably tell a story or two about a friend who did something really silly or zany after drinking. On a more serious note, you have probably also heard about instances where alcohol intoxication was associated with dangerous behaviors, such as drunk driving, violence, or unprotected sex. It is generally believed that alcohol affects behavior through a process of disinhibition, in that intoxicated people let go of common sense and do things that they are normally unwilling to do. Psychological research, however, suggests that disinhibition alone is an insufficient explanation for the effects of alcohol on behavior. Claude Steele and his colleagues have put forth alcohol myopia theory, which is an alternative theory to explain the effects of alcohol on behavior.
Alcohol Myopia Importance and Consequences
Alcohol myopia theory explains why alcohol consumption can sometimes lead to unexpected behaviors or moods. For example, sometimes a person might become “the life of the party” after drinking alcohol, yet in another circumstance, that person might become quiet and withdrawn after consuming alcohol. According to alcohol myopia theory, the effect that alcohol will have on a person is determined by the pieces of information, or cues, that are most obvious to the drinker. Because the drinker can attend to only a small subset of information, the cues that are more prominent will have the greatest influence on mood and behavior. Cues that might influence mood and behavior range from external factors (things that are in the person’s immediate environment) to internal factors (things that the person experiences internally, such as thoughts and feelings). For example, an intoxicated individual who listens to upbeat music might experience an elevation in mood, whereas an intoxicated individual who watches a sad movie is likely to feel sad. Furthermore, when someone is in a good mood and thinking about happy things, alcohol consumption may lead to an elevated mood because the individual attends primarily to these positive thoughts. By the same logic, someone who is down in the dumps and experiencing negative thoughts would be prone to an increase in sadness after becoming intoxicated.
Alcohol myopia theory also provides an explanation for why people are often more likely to engage in risky, dangerous behaviors after drinking, such as unprotected sex (even when they know the potential costs of these behaviors). Intoxicated people do not have the ability to pay attention to both the risks associated with the behavior (inhibiting cues) and the benefits of the behavior (impelling cues). Because the immediate benefits of the behavior (e.g., gratification of sexual arousal) are often the most attention-grabbing cues, intoxicated people are most likely to focus on these, at the expense of taking risk factors into account (e.g., potentially contracting an STD or causing a pregnancy).
For example, in a study by MacDonald and colleagues, sober and intoxicated university students were recruited from a local bar. As they entered the bar, students received a hand stamp. On some nights, the hand stamp said, “AIDS kills.” This stamp was intended to be a salient cue reminding people of one of the major risks involved in having unprotected sex (contracting an STD). On other nights, students were given neutral, innocuous hand stamps (a smiley face). The results of this study might surprise you. For participants with the neutral hand stamp, intoxicated participants were more likely than the sober participants to say they would have unprotected sex. In contrast (and here is the surprising part), among those with the “AIDS kills” hand stamp, intoxicated participants were actually less likely than sober participants to say they would have unprotected sex. This result is very counterintuitive to most people, but it makes sense in the context of alcohol myopia theory. Presumably, the sober participants were able to take both the impelling cues (such as sexual arousal) and the inhibiting cues (such as risk of STDs), into account when making their decision. As a result, introducing the “AIDS kills” hand stamp did little to influence their decision because they were already considering the full range of relevant information. The intoxicated participants, on the other hand, were only capable of focusing on one set of cues. When they had a neutral hand stamp, the impelling cues were more attention-grabbing, which made them more open to the idea of having sex even though a condom was not available. However, when the “AIDS kills” hand stamp (a prominent inhibiting cue) was introduced, they became myopically focused on this inhibiting information to the exclusion of the impelling cues.
Therefore, alcohol myopia theory predicts that alcohol intoxication may make people behave in either a riskier, or more cautious, manner—depending on the cues that are noticeable. When the benefits of a risky behavior are very prominent, alcohol should be associated with riskier behavior. In contrast, when the costs of a risky behavior are very prominent, alcohol should be associated with safer behavior. Knowledge of alcohol myopia can be used to help social psychologists design interventions that will be effective in helping to curb some of the dangerous behaviors that tend to be associated with alcohol consumption.
- MacDonald, T. K., Fong, G. T., Zanna, M. P., & Martineau, A. M. (2000). Alcohol myopia and condom use: Can alcohol intoxication be associated with more prudent behavior? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 605-619.
- Steele, C. M., & Josephs, R. A. (1990). Alcohol myopia: Its prized and dangerous effects. American Psychologist, 45, 921-933.