You're Only Ever as Drunk as You Think Your Friends Aren't

A new study finds people tend to gauge their own level of inebriation by how drunk those around them are (or aren't). Barry Lewis/Getty Images

It's safe to say that the great Charles Bukowski enjoyed a cold one every now and then. "That's the problem with drinking," Bukowski once wrote. "If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen." Bukowski wasn't alone: In the U.S., about three-quarters of people above the age of 18 drink alcohol at least once a year.

As Bukowski put it, there are plenty of reasons to pop a bottle from time to time. Moderate alcohol intake can be good for the heart and the circulatory system, and help ward off other maladies like diabetes and gallstones. A little tipple or two has even been found to help keep the brain sharp as drinkers enter middle age. That's not to mention that science has proven that getting half in the bag every once in a while can be just plain fun — thanks, science!

Of course, not all of the signs point toward dropping everything and saddling up the nearest bar. There are drawbacks that come with alcohol consumption, many of which increase with the more booze you guzzle back. That includes serious health risks, as well as depression, and the significant number of drinking and driving accidents and fatalities that happen on roads around the world every day.

The key for most folks is drinking in moderation. But that kind of approach raises all sorts of questions about exactly how much is too much. It also means drinkers need to keep a close eye on how many snorts of bourbon they put back, a task for some is easier said than done. In fact, it turns out that many folks simply turn to their friends when they want to whether they're actually drunk.

A new study out of Australia finds that drunk people often judge their level of intoxication based on the drunkenness of their friends and others around them. Researchers at Cardiff University say that conclusion could give public health officials a leg up in helping drinkers take it a little easier.

"We would hypothesize that increasing the mix of people using social areas — that is increasing the number of sober people — could affect a change in drinkers' perceptions, which may in turn provide an impetus for them to moderate their consumption," Cardiff professor Simon Moore says.

About 1,800 younger drinkers (average age: 27 years old) participated in the study, in which researchers tested blood alcohol content on weekend evenings in four different locations where booze was served and sold. The participants were asked various questions about their drunkenness and how they gauged the potential health risks of continuing to drink that much every week.

In short, Moore and his colleagues found that the drinkers judged their own drunkenness — including whether they'd had too much and were doing a number on their health — by comparing themselves to others around them, rather than analyzing their own senses. They were more likely to underestimate how drunk they were when surrounded by other inebriated drinkers, and more inclined to feel like they'd gone overboard when surrounded by folks who were sober.

Moore said that means mixing areas where people are drinking with those full of teetotalers could help booze hounds slow their roll. The findings dovetail with a 2002 study in Finland, in which researchers concluded that younger drinkers base their feelings about how much they can consume without causing health damage on their peers' drinking patterns.

But because Moore's research was observational, it doesn't eliminate other possible factors that may go into a person's perception of their own drunkenness.

In other words, more research might be necessary. Cheers!