The smell of alcohol can affect behavior

24 May, 2022

The mere smell of alcohol appears to reduce people’s level of control over their behavior, according to research published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

Statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that, in the US, from 2010-2012, six people died every day as a result of alcohol poisoning. Of these, 76% were among the 35-64-year age group, and 76% were men.

Governments, community groups and health departments around the world make efforts to discourage people from consuming excessive quantities of alcohol, as this can lead to accidents due to impaired judgment and long-term problems of dependency.

The Office on Women’s Health, of the US Department of Health and Human Services, lists some of the reasons why people become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

These include an individual’s genes, gender and ethnicity, as well as exposure to peer pressure, stress and family issues.

Effects of alcohol can depend on environment

Now, research carried out by a team from Edge Hill University in the UK suggests that even the smell of alcohol may make it harder for people to control their behavior, suggesting that it could attract people to consume.

Previous research has shown that behaviors related to alcohol consumption vary according to the environment. An “alcohol-salient environment” would be one where the idea of alcohol is pervasive, through visual and other cues.

Studies have suggested that the sight of alcohol can lead to physiological arousal and salivation. Such cues have also been shown to bring about changes in alcohol consumption. They appear to capture people’s attention involuntarily.

The more a person drinks, say the researchers, the more their attention will engage with alcohol-related cues.

In the current study, the researchers set out to explore how visual and olfactory cues relating to alcohol would impact people’s inhibitory control, in other words, their ability to control their attention to alcohol.

Participants in the computer-based study wore a scented face mask and carried out a task on screen. Some people had a mask laced with alcohol, while others had one laced with a non-alcoholic citrus solution.

Subjects then had to press a button when they saw either the letter K or the image of a bottle of beer on the screen.

Scent of alcohol leads to more ‘false alarms’

If a participant pressed the button incorrectly, this was registered as a “false alarm.” A false alarm suggested that the participant had become less able to control their behavior when asked to.

The participants who registered the false alarms were more likely to be wearing the masks bearing the scent of alcohol.

The team believes that the sight and sound of alcohol might stimulate cognitive responses that increase the likelihood of consumption.

Dr. Rebecca Monk, who is a senior lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University, says:

“This research is a first attempt to explore […] triggers, such as smell, that may interfere with people’s ability to refrain from a particular behavior. For example, during the experiment, it seemed that just the smell of alcohol was making it harder for participants to control their behavior to stop pressing a button.”

Coauthor Prof. Derek Heim adds that this kind of study could provide new insight into addiction and substance abuse. He emphasizes that to validate the results, it would be necessary to observe them outside the laboratory, in a real-world setting.

The team hopes that a better understanding of how context influences substance use will lead to more appropriate interventions to help those who consume different substances in different situations.

Medical News Today recently reported that alcohol may trigger a gene that causes breast cancer.