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Tipsy or tanked? Study shows it’s tough to tell

‘I’m fine.’

It’s the slurred catchcry of many a drunk person and new research has explored the tendency to underestimate levels of intoxication.

Researchers interviewed 388 students outside three concerts at the University of Otago during Orientation Week festivities. They asked participants to rate how intoxicated they felt on a scale of 0 (meaning not at all) to 10 (meaning very) before they took a breath test.

And in something reminiscent of the weight-guessing booths at carnivals, the research team also rated how intoxicated they believed each student to be, looking out for tell-tale signs like slurred speech and loss of coordination.

People tended to have a better grasp on how drunk they were at a lower blood alcohol concentration (BAC) but both the self-rated and observer-rated intoxication level appeared to drop-off at a higher level of BAC, around three times the legal limit.

Observers were significantly more likely to underestimate the intoxication of older participants, while people of European descent tended to underestimate their level of intoxication compare to other ethnicities.

The authors wrote: “Explanations from other studies suggested that cognitive impairment may occur at the higher intoxication levels, meaning that people can no longer interpret internal signals of intoxication.

“However, as we observed this ‘drop-off’ effect at the higher intoxication levels for observer-rated intoxication as well, the ‘cognitive impairment’ explanation does not apply; thus, it is possible that another explanation is needed for both effects.”

One potential explanation the team put forward is that there was a ‘ceiling effect’ for observable signs of intoxication. Due to the nature of the study, none of the participants displayed overt signs of high BAC, such as unconsciousness, as they had to get themselves to the event.

The researchers said that even professionals who regularly interact with alcohol-intoxicated people can struggle to correctly identify presence or level of intoxication.

A study based in an emergency setting found that clinicians missed just under a quarter (23 per cent) of alcohol-intoxicated presentations.

“Bias can also play a role: patients who appeared to be disheveled or of low SES were significantly more likely to be falsely suspected of intoxication,” the authors said.

“Years of experience or receiving training may not always be enough to overcome these inaccuracies.”

The researchers suggested that additional training may be necessary to identify those at higher levels of intoxication.

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