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From Bar-Hopping to Bed-Hopping

Study finds drunken men are more willing to take sexual risks

THURSDAY, Oct. 4, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A bar-hopping researcher has discovered there's truth to an age-old assumption: If you pour a few drinks into a man, he'll be more likely to chase a promiscuous woman, regardless of the health risks.

The findings may appear about as obvious as a clumsy come-on line. But experts say studies like this give them more insight into why booze and a devil-may-care attitude go hand-in-hand.

Intoxicated people "are highly influenced by what's most immediate. They focus on what's right in front of them, and they don't focus on distant consequences," says Tara MacDonald, a psychology professor at Queen's University in Canada and an expert in the mental effects of alcohol.

The researcher, University of Wyoming graduate student Joe Gieck, became interested in the effects of booze after learning about the theory of "alcohol myopia." That theory says drunken people can focus only on concepts in the forefront of their minds and lose their ability to consider alternatives.

For example, MacDonald says, an intoxicated person may have trouble contemplating the risks of driving while drunk. "They'd probably think, 'I'm tired and I want to go home and here are my car keys, so I'm going to drive home,' without thinking of the potential costs. Those things aren't physically immediate to them. They have to imagine those scenarios, and they're not likely to do that because they're intoxicated," she explains.

To get a better idea of the role of alcohol in dating rituals, Gieck designed an unusual experiment to examine the thoughts of drunken men on the make.

Gieck went to bars in an undisclosed Rocky Mountain town and showed pictures of four women to 36 men who were in varying states of intoxication. Two of the women were considered attractive according to an earlier informal survey, and two were not. A "vignette" was created for each woman. Two, one attractive and one unattractive, were of "high sexual risk" -- defined as promiscuous and unlikely to use condoms. The other two were described as being of "low sexual risk."

Gieck asked the men which woman they would like to have sex with. He also measured the men's blood-alcohol levels with a Breathalyzer.

He expected the most intoxicated ones would focus on the immediate issue at hand --- having sex --- and let the risks fade into the background. He was right.

Those men whose blood-alcohol limit was between 0.08 percent (the legal driving limit in many states) and 0.13 were more likely to want to have sex with the attractive, high-risk woman. A total of 91 percent of the drunken men wanted to have sex with the high-risk, attractive woman, compared to 54 percent of the men who were sober or slightly intoxicated.

The drunken men simply didn't perceive the risks posed by the hypothetically promiscuous woman, Gieck says. "Their focus was on having intercourse with an attractive individual."

Gieck says his findings, which were reported at a recent American Psychological Association meeting in San Francisco, will help people "recognize the potential dangers they may be placing themselves in" when they become intoxicated.

But alcohol myopia isn't always a bad thing. While it can reinforce unhealthy behavior, it can also reinforce safe behavior if it's in the forefront of someone's mind, says MacDonald. "It causes more risky or more cautious intentions, depending on what cues are in the environment," she adds.

For that reason, bar owners should consider ways to put messages about caution directly in front of patrons, she says.

What To Do

If you plan on becoming drunk, make sure you have a sober friend around to keep an eye on you.

West Virginia University offers this fact sheet about what happens to your body and mind as you become more and more intoxicated.

Do you think you may have an alcohol problem? Alcoholics Anonymous offers a 12-question quiz to help you find out.

SOURCES: Interviews with Tara MacDonald, Ph.D., psychology professor, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario; Joe Gieck, graduate student, University of Wyoming, Laramie
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