Dr. Michael Sayette, University of Pittsburgh – Psychology of Social Drinking

Nov 16, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Michael Sayette of the University of Pittsburgh explains how alcohol influences social interactions between strangers.

Michael Sayette is a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh where his research interests include the psychological theories of alcohol use and abuse, cigarette smoking, drug craving, and social processes in addiction, alcohol and stress. His findings have been published in a number of peer-reviewed journals and he holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University.

About Dr. Sayette

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Dr. Michael Sayette – Psychology of Social Drinking

Presumably, if we had a better understanding of people’s motives for drinking we could improve our ability to identify who is at increased risk for developing drinking problems.  Although surveys have repeatedly revealed that people claim to drink in order to improve their social experiences, it has been surprising that decades of laboratory research have failed to produce consistent support for this expectation.
Though most participants in alcohol studies are “social drinkers" who rarely drink alone, most studies have only tested participants one at a time.  These participants likely experience alcohol quite differently when they are drinking alone than when they are drinking in a group setting. Our research examined the effects of alcohol among three strangers drinking together using sophisticated observational methods and methodological advances derived from small group research.
The current study was much larger than prior investigations.  It required coding more than 34 million separate frames of video, and provided the most comprehensive experimental evidence yet to support the premise that alcohol can serve as a social lubricant.  Furthermore, the group formation paradigm used in this study offers a valid paradigm for testing which individuals may be at heightened risk for relying on these social effects of alcohol.  Together with Dr. Kasey Creswell, we have found that individuals with a particular variant of a dopamine-regulating gene (DRD4) are especially sensitive to the effects of alcohol on perceived social bonding.  
Our findings indicate that we must appreciate the powerful effects that alcohol can exert on our social interactions and we need to guard against allowing this attractive effect to nudge us into potentially hazardous drinking habits.