One reason why drinking and driving is so dangerous is that alcohol tends to push a person toward riskier behavior. In a new study, researchers discovered that as blood alcohol levels spike, males, in particular, are more likely to make riskier choices.
In general, people tend to avoid decisions in which the outcomes are uncertain; this is known as “ambiguity aversion.” But psychological scientists Drs. Tadeusz Tyszka, Anna Macko, and Maciej Stańczak from Kozminski University in Warsaw, Poland, found that after people had a few drinks, they were much more willing to bet on a risky choice with unknown odds.
When it comes to driving home, drinkers may find themselves more willing to risk the potential consequences of driving under the influence instead of calling a cab.
For the study, researchers recruited 100 participants — 46 women and 54 men between the ages of 18 and 43 years — from a restaurant bar. Researchers went up to bar customers and asked them if they would be interested in participating in a study on people’s accuracy in guessing their own blood alcohol levels.
Volunteers were then taken to a separate room where they guessed their current blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Their actual BAC was then measured using a breathalyzer.
As a reward for their participation, bar patrons were told that they could win free drink tickets. Each participant was asked to pull a card from one of two jars. One jar contained 15 free drink vouchers and 15 empty cards, so participants were told that the odds of winning were 50/50. The second jar contained 30 coupons, including vouchers good for two free drinks at the bar as well as empty cards. Participants were not told their chances for winning in the “ambiguous-choice” jar.
The findings showed that higher levels of alcohol strongly impacted people’s willingness to bet on the risky ambiguous-choice jar — but only in males. Regardless of blood alcohol levels, women in the study preferred betting on the known 50/50 odds. In men, however, the more drunk they were, the more likely they were to choose the jar with unknown odds.
Overall, when BAC levels in men rose above 1.00 percent (the legal limit to drive in all U.S. states is at least .08 percent), they became more likely to choose the jar with the riskier, unknown odds. The researchers suggest that one reason for this gender difference is that men are more often socialized to see risk-taking as a positive trait.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.