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Strangers move closer together as they become intoxicated

A new study has revealed the effects of alcohol consumption on social distancing. The researchers found that while strangers may initially keep their distance from each other when drinking together, they draw closer as they become intoxicated. 

Volunteers were asked to bring a friend who would also participate in the study. Overall, 212 young social drinkers were assigned to different experimental conditions that allowed the experts to test how social familiarity influences drinking behavior.

The research was led by Catharine Fairbairn, a professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“In half of the cases, participants drank with a friend,” said Professor Fairbairn. “In the other half, they drank with the friend of another participant – a stranger.”

The pairs were assigned to consume either alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages, and the interactions were videotaped. The participants involved in the experimental condition were provided with enough alcohol to reach a blood alcohol level associated with intoxication. 

“We measured distance between the individuals via machine-learning methods that detect hands, arms, legs and head position for each person in the video,” said study co-author Professor Nigel Bosch, who developed the method. 

“We used a bit of geometry to turn the pixel coordinates of people detected in the video into real-world distances based on objects of known size visible in the video.”

According to Professor Fairbairn, friends tended to draw closer to one another whether or not they consumed alcohol.

“But participants interacting with a stranger only moved closer to that individual if they were intoxicated. The physical distance between these pairs decreased by about 1 centimeter per three-minute interval,” explained Professor Fairbairn.

Individuals who drank non-alcoholic beverages with strangers did not move significantly closer to each other during the experiment.

“This study shows that over time, alcohol reduces physical distance between people who are not previously acquainted,” said study lead author Laura Gurrieri. 

“This finding is particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic because it suggests that alcohol might facilitate virus transmission and impede the following of social distancing guidelines.”

Professor Fairbairn noted that the ability of the participants to move closer to one another was somewhat constrained because they were seated across from each other at a table. Furthermore, the study was conducted in a quiet, spacious laboratory and not a bar.

“Folks would likely draw even closer to one another in a crowded bar with loud music when compared with our laboratory environment. That would have to be the subject of another study.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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