“Beer makes men smarter: study” – NY Daily News
Here’s a near-guarantee: Do serious research on the intersection of drunkenness and cognitive abilities, and our soundbite society will mangle your findings to fit into irresistible headlines.
That, anyway, is the fate of three researchers at the University of Illinois, who set out to explore the link between inebriation and creativity – a link widely assumed since at least the days when Beethoven was throwing back bottles of wine with every meal.
The result: An interesting preliminary suggestion that intoxication may weaken “working memory control,” and that the resulting loss of focus and attention can permit the right hemisphere of the brain to elbow its way in with more diffuse and remote associations, which in turn can improve creative, but not analytical, problem solving.
The media’s take on that finding: “Beer makes you smarter.”
No matter that the study didn’t even involve beer.
Here’s what the research really found: Andrew F. Jarosz, Gregory J.H. Colflesh and Jennifer Wiley, all from the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wanted to put some science behind the widely held notion that drinking (like drug use and, for that matter, insanity) opens up the creative juices. So they recruited volunteers, partly through a Craigslist ad — and wouldn’t you love to see that listing — and ended up with 40 men who were split into two carefully matched groups, the drunk cohort and the sober cohort. (The study involved only men to avoid the possibility of serving loads of alcohol to a woman who was unaware she was pregnant.)
Participants in the drinking group first ate a “weight-adjusted snack of bagels,” and then were provided with a vodka-cranberry drink, also in quantities tailored to their weight. (Note that the Daily News incorrectly reported that participants were provided with two pints of beer. Perhaps the headline “Cosmopolitans make men smarter” just didn’t have the same zing.)
Participants in the sober group were provided neither the booze nor the snack (leading to the possibility that it’s actually bagels that make you more creative). Both groups, for reasons not entirely clear, also watched the animated movie Ratatouille while the booze was taking effect.
After volunteers reached an intoxication level of about .07 BAC, participants in both groups were given a series of creative problems to solve, in the form of a Remote Associates Test. The subjects were provided three words — for example, “peach,” “arm” and “tar” — and given a minute to come up with a fourth term that pairs with each of the original three. (The answer: “pit.” Since it’s kind of fun, here’s another: “blue,” “cottage” and “Swiss” – which you can surely solve without my help.)
The Remote Associates Test, developed half a century ago, is designed to measure non-linear, non-analytical problem solving. Compared to, say, a series of algebra problems, the RAT — say, maybe that’s why they watched Ratatouille — is considered a good test of creative problem solving, the researchers wrote, “because the most salient potential responses to the problem are often incorrect, and one must retrieve more remote associates in order to reach solution. … For those problems where initial associates are incorrect or the solver reaches an impasse, successful solution is thought to require divergent thinking and the ability to overcome fixation from earlier guesses.”
So with mild intoxication causing a loss of concentration, the researchers surmised that the slightly buzzed might have an easier time not getting hung up on their earlier, incorrect answers and would be more open to creative and intuitive solutions.
And indeed, the drinking group solved nearly 40 percent more problems than the sober group, and solved them more quickly as well. They also reported a higher incidence of believing the answers came to them intuitively rather than the result of complex methodical analysis.
“The results of this study provide support for earlier suggestions that creative problem solving may benefit from a more diffuse attentional state,” the researchers concluded, selecting a term – “more diffuse attentional state” that sounds way more scientific than “hella wasted.”
“While detrimental for analytic problem solving, this is exactly the type of dynamic required for success in
creative problem solving,” they wrote.
The first part of that sentence could easily have yielded a headline that read: “Drinking makes you stupider.”
But that wouldn’t have gotten web hits, would it?