The first study to test the effects of alcohol consumption on social distancing finds that strangers tend to become physically closer to each other when intoxicated.
(CN) — As governments and health professionals continue to urge social distancing, new research revealed Monday that strangers who drink alcohol become physically closer with one another the drunker they get.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that intoxicated strangers quickly abandoned social distancing with every drink they took.
“In half of the cases, participants drank with a friend,” said Catharine Fairbairn, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in a statement. “In the other half, they drank with the friend of another participant — a stranger.”
To test the effects of alcohol on social distancing, the scientists experimented with a pool of 212 social drinkers to view their behavior as they became inebriated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends maintaining a distance of 6 feet from people indoors to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The researchers split the subjects into pairs to consume either alcoholic or nonalcoholic drinks and then videotaped each pair to see how they interacted.
“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 Nigel Bosch, professor of information sciences and of educational psychology at the university. “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.”
Fairbairn said friends usually maintained close distances regardless of what they drank.
“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,” she said.
Most notable was those who did not drink alcoholic beverages, as they did not move closer to strangers.
“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.”
Fairbairn said that since the experiment took place in a laboratory, the subjects were more restrained in their movement, something that might not happen in a bar.
“Folks would likely draw even closer to one another in a crowded bar with loud music when compared with our laboratory environment,” she said. “That would have to be the subject of another study.”