A group of people got drunk in a lab to monitor how well they maintained social distancing after a tipple or two. Spoiler alert: they didn’t manage very well.
More than 200 young, healthy social drinkers were assigned to drink or not drink in various experimental conditions for the study. Participants were asked to bring a friend along; they were then either assigned to drink with their mate, have a non-boozy bevvy with their mate, or do the same with someone else’s friend (a.k.a a total stranger) – all while being filmed.
Unsurprisingly, the study found drinking booze is not conducive to good social distancing. In fact, even strangers who drank alcohol together moved physically closer the more drunk they became.
Friends tended to draw close to one another whether or not they consumed alcohol, said study author Professor Catharine Fairbairn, a psychology expert at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Those interacting with a stranger only moved closer to that individual if they were drunk. The physical distance between these pairs decreased by about 1cm per three-minute interval as the drinks rolled in.
Study co-author Professor Nigel Bosch said they measured distance between drinking mates via machine-learning methods that detected hands, arms, legs and head position in the footage captured.
Those who drank non-alcoholic beverages with strangers didn’t draw significantly closer to one another during the experiment. “This study shows that over time, alcohol reduces physical distance between people who are not previously acquainted,” said Laura Gurrieri, a researcher in psychology.
“This finding is particularly important in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic because it suggests that alcohol might facilitate virus transmission and impede the following of social distancing guidelines.”
Fairbairn said the study was conducted in a quiet, spacious laboratory and not a bar. “Folks would likely draw even closer to one another in a crowded bar with loud music when compared with our laboratory environment,” she added. “That would have to be the subject of another study.”
A UK study published earlier this year found similar results: drinking in pubs is risky when it comes to the spread of Covid-19. Published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the study – which reportedly cost the Scottish government £60,000 – examined the operation of Covid-19 measures in pubs and bars.
Despite measures being put in place, there were instances of close interaction between customers and staff that “frequently involved alcohol intoxication”.
Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, lead author and director of the University of Stirling’s institute for social marketing and health, said at the time the findings suggested “grounds for uncertainty” about the extent to which rules could be effectively implemented in a sector where interaction between tables, households and strangers is the norm, and alcohol is routinely consumed.