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Fake Alcohol Tricks the Memory

Your chances of knowing whether the bartender has watered down your drink and remembering it afterwards are pretty slim, according to two Victoria University psychology researchers.

PhD student Seema Assefi and Senior Lecturer Maryanne Garry have found that memory can be affected by an alcohol placebo—in other words, by fake alcohol. Their results will be published in the January 2003 issue of the prestigious journal Psychological Science, published by the American Psychological Association.

Dr Garry says the research has given new insights into how human memory works and how both social and non-social influences can affect a person's recall of events. Those who believed they had consumed alcohol were more swayed by misleading information and more certain their memory was correct than those who were told they were drinking tonic water. Other attempts to prove that alcohol placebos could influence memory – by simply getting people to remember lists of words – had been inconclusive.

"What we have done is that we have made people’s memory worse by telling them that they were intoxicated even though they had drunken nothing stronger than plain flat tonic water with limes," says Dr Garry.

"What our research shows is that memory is not just about filing away information like a computer does. It’s much more than that: memory is what we use to understand and remember events in a social setting, such as witnessing a crime. As well, it shows we have more control over our memory than we realise."

For the study, 148 undergraduate students were split into two groups, half being told they were getting vodka and tonic and the rest told they were getting just tonic. In reality all were getting plain tonic. The research was carried out in a room equipped with bartenders, Absolut® vodka bottles, tonic bottles, and glasses, to give the feel of a bar-like setting. Flat tonic water was poured from sealed vodka bottles that appeared to be brand new. The deception occurred by rimming glasses with limes dunked in vodka.

Ms Assefi said after consuming their drinks, all the students then watched a sequence of slides depicting a crime. They also then read a summary of the crime that was riddled with misleading information.

"We found people who thought they were intoxicated were more suggestible and made worse eyewitnesses compared to those who thought they were sober. In fact the 'vodka and tonic' students acted drunk, some even showing physical signs of intoxication," Ms Assefi said.

"When students were told the true nature of the experiment at the completion of the study, many were amazed that they had only received plain tonic, insisting that they had felt drunk at the time."

Issued by Victoria University of Wellington Public Affairs
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