Alcohol Myopia Effect

What Is Alcohol Myopia?

When asked about the effect of alcohol consumption on behavior, most people can probably recount a scene or two where a friend or close relative did something really silly or zany after drinking. It is generally believed that alcohol affects behavior through a process of disinhibition, in that intoxicated people let go of common sense and do things that they are normally unwilling to do. Claude Steele et al., have put forth alcohol myopia theory to explain the effects of alcohol on behavior.

The effect of alcohol on information processing has been termed alcohol myopia (Steele & Josephs, 1990). Alcohol myopia refers to the fact that intoxication reduces cognitive capacity, which results in a narrowing of attention (hence, myopia).

  • Alcohol myopia is the tendency for intoxication to reduce cognitive capacity, which results in a narrowing of attention. Alcohol myopic individuals are unable to pay attention to any but the most salient features of a situation.

Alcohol myopia theory states that alcohol intoxication (getting drunk) decreases the amount of information that individuals can process.

Consequently, when people are intoxicated, the range of information that they can pay attention to is restricted, such that intoxicated people are able to pay attention to only some of the information that could be registered by a sober person. In addition, their ability to fully analyze the information that that they registered is impaired.

Understanding the Effect of Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol myopia theory explains why alcohol consumption can sometimes lead to unexpected behaviors or moods. For example, sometimes a person might become “the life of the party” after drinking alcohol, yet in another circumstance, that person might become quiet and withdrawn after consuming alcohol.

Accordingly, the effect that alcohol will have on a person is determined by the pieces of information, or cues, that are most salient to the alcohol myopic or intoxicated individual (drinker). Because the drinker can attend to only a small subset of information, the cues that are more salient will have the greatest influence on mood and behavior.

Cues that might influence mood and behavior range from external factors (things that are in the person’s immediate environment) to internal factors (things that the person experiences internally, such as thoughts and feelings). For example, an intoxicated individual who listens to upbeat music might experience an elevation in mood, whereas an intoxicated individual who watches a sad movie is likely to feel sad.

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Furthermore, when someone is in a good mood and thinking about happy things, alcohol consumption may lead to an elevated mood because the individual attends primarily to these positive thoughts. By the same logic, someone is down in the dumps and experiencing negative thoughts would be prone to an increase in sadness after becoming intoxicated.

Alcohol myopia theory also provides an explanation for why people are often more likely to engage in risky, dangerous behaviors after drinking, such as unprotected sex (even when they know the potential costs of these behaviors). Intoxicated people do not have the ability to pay attention to both the risks associated with the behavior (inhibiting cues) and the benefits of the behavior (impelling cues).

Because the immediate benefits of the behavior (e.g., gratification of sexual arousal) are often the most attention-grabbing cues, intoxicated people are most likely to focus on these, at the expense of taking risk factors into account (e.g., potentially contracting an STD or causing a pregnancy).

In sum, alcohol myopia theory predicts that alcohol intoxication may make people behave in either a riskier, or more cautious, manner—depending on the cues that are salient. When the benefits of a risky behavior are very prominent, alcohol should be associated with riskier behavior. In contrast, when the costs of a risky behavior are very prominent, alcohol should be associated with safer behavior.

Knowledge of alcohol myopia can be used to help social psychologists design interventions that will be effective in helping to curb some of the dangerous behaviors that tend to be associated with alcohol consumption.