New study suggests that 'liquid courage' is real — but ‘beer goggles’ might not be

A fanciful animated illustration of a man dancing in a huge martini glass held by a woman's hand on a platter, with three gaping mouths in the background against a rotating slice of lime and with maraschino cherries floating by.
Alcohol gives you "liquid courage," according to a new study. (Photo illustration: Jay Sprogell for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

You’re not imagining things if it feels easier to approach someone after you’ve had a cocktail or two.

According to a new study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, alcohol does make you more likely to talk to people you already find appealing. However, the same study suggests that if you are intoxicated, it doesn’t make them appear more attractive than they actually are.

What the study says

Alcohol may not enhance the physical appeal of other people, and make them seem more attractive than they actually are, but it can boost your confidence in approaching people whom you find attractive. In other words, while “liquid courage” is a thing, “beer goggles” isn’t necessarily.

What are the key findings?

It’s important to note this study is small — involving a group of 36 men — so larger studies are needed. In the study, pairs of male friends in their 20s were asked to rate the attractiveness of people they saw in photos and videos after being given alcoholic beverages (up to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%, the legal limit for driving in the U.S.) on one occasion. On a separate occasion, the same test was administered when the subjects had been served non-alcoholic beverages. After rating people based on their attractiveness, the study participants were told they might be able to interact with one of them in a future experiment.

Here are two of the most interesting findings from the study:

  • After drinking alcohol, the participants were 1.7 times more likely to choose to potentially interact with people they found attractive, as compared to when they were sober.

  • Alcohol did not affect the subjects' perception of the people they found attractive (in other words, how good-looking they considered the people pictured).

What experts think

Research is generally mixed on whether “beer goggles” is a thing, although more recent studies say it’s not, according to Teri Wilder, a therapist with Thriveworks in Lafayette, Ind., who educates first-year college students on drinking. “Regardless of whether one believes in ‘beer goggles’ as a concept, one thing that is proven is the fact that alcohol reduces inhibitions, causes one to feel more relaxed and has the potential to make someone reduce their typical standards in pursuit of instant gratification,” Wilder tells Yahoo Life.

As for alcohol boosting confidence, the lead investigator of the study, Molly A. Bowdring with the Stanford Prevention Research Center, says that previous research has addressed how alcohol reduces fear of social rejection. “Because people, in general, prefer to associate with attractive others, these findings add to our understanding of why people may find alcohol rewarding in social settings,” she tells Yahoo Life.

Bowdring believes the most interesting finding in her study is that having a drink to overcome one's natural inhibitions against approaching an attractive person is actually backed by science — at least for men. “Our finding that alcohol leads men to prefer to interact with more attractive partners provides evidence for a social mechanism, ‘liquid courage,’ which may help to incentivize drinking,” she says.

Wilder largely agrees. “Alcohol can temporarily provide a sense of increased confidence, impacting the social anxiety that we can experience,” she says, while providing a “warm, fuzzy feeling” that brings “a sense of comfort doing things that one would not typically do.” While under the influence, people are generally more likely to approach people they’re interested in and feel sexually confident, as well as to sing karaoke and dance, she adds.

She goes on to explain some of the science behind it, saying, “Alcohol has a tendency to release feel-good endorphins and dopamine in high levels, which impacts the gratification centers of the brain, encouraging individuals who have been drinking to seek out ‘feel-good’ activities.” Wilder adds that as a depressant, alcohol can also dampen the more intense feelings of anxiety, for example, that people may feel while sober.

Why it matters

Both Bowdring and Wilder say it’s important to be aware of how alcohol influences you and your decisions. “Reflecting on one’s goals for social interactions and how alcohol may affect these interactions — [including] in ways that can end up being harmful — can be useful prior to entering a social drinking experience,” Bowdring says.

While alcohol has the potential to make a person feel good for a short time, says Wilder, “it is not something that should be relied on to help in making those decisions that you would not typically engage in while sober.”

She also warns about the risk of becoming addicted to alcohol. “Due to the feel-good effect that alcohol has, it can become addicting for some individuals, resulting in a sensation of needing it to feel ‘normal’ in the day and the benefit of feeling numbed by the alcohol.”

If stepping away from alcohol is difficult for you, Wilder says you can find help through treatment centers, support groups and therapy.

While indulging in a little alcohol is a common way of easing social anxiety, experts say it’s important to drink responsibly and not to rely on alcohol as a coping mechanism.