Behind the Headlines

Thursday April 23 2009

Alcohol had no affect on men’s estimates of the age of the faces

The “beer goggles theory”, whereby alcohol makes a person more attractive, is “a myth”, the Daily Mirror reported. The newspaper said that a study found that people who had drunk alcohol actually rated faces as less attractive than those who had not been drinking. The Daily Star said the researchers also used pictures of young women that had been digitally altered to make them appear younger or older. Women who drank alcohol had a reduced ability to guess the age of the models but the men’s judgement was unaffected.

This study appears to suggest that alcohol intake may not affect men’s age perception, and may make faces less rather than more attractive. However, it does have several limitations. For example, the drinking and non-drinking groups may have differed in ways other than their alcohol use that affected their perceptions of age or attractiveness. Faces were digitally made up and altered to represent different ages, and the results may not accurately reflect how well people can judge ages of real people in real life situations. In addition, the study asked both men and women to rate the ‘attractiveness’ of female faces, which does not necessarily equate to sexual attractiveness.

Where did the story come from?

Professor Vincent Egan and Giray Cordan from the Universities of Leicester and Exeter carried out this research. No sources of funding for the study were reported. The study was published in the peer-reviewed British Journal of Psychology.

What kind of scientific study was this?

This experimental study investigated how alcohol and make up affected men and women’s perception of attractiveness.

In their experiment, the researchers used photographs of 10 17-year-old girls who had agreed to have their photos used in the research. The researchers created another version of each picture that had been digitally altered so that the girls appeared to be wearing more make-up. They then used special computer software to alter the faces to look either older (20 years, the ‘mature’ face) or younger (13 years, the ‘immature’ face). This was done by altering the girls facial bone structure to match typical structures for these ages.

The researchers then visited bars and cafes to find heterosexual men and women aged 18 to 70 years. Volunteers were asked if they had been drinking and the researchers selected 120 people who had been drinking alcohol and 120 people who had not been drinking. Participants who had been drinking alcohol were breathalysed at the end of the experiment to estimate their blood alcohol level. Blood alcohol levels ranged from 0.01 to 0.06; a level at which people reported feeling “relaxed and benign”, to 0.21 to 0.40, a level that could be described as “unambiguously drunk and probably mentally impaired”.

Volunteers sat with a laptop that showed them the facial images in random order and asked them to rate them on a scale from one (unattractive) to seven (very attractive) and to estimate the age of the person in the image. If participants stated they were seeing the same faces, the researcher explained that no two faces were the same and should be judged individually. Researchers then looked at the interaction between alcohol consumption and make-up level in the pictures and perceived age and attractiveness. They also looked at whether the participant’s age or gender affected the results.

What were the results of the study?

There was a tendency for people with a higher blood alcohol level to rate the mature female face as more attractive. However, there was no clear overall relationship between blood alcohol level and attractiveness rating for mature or immature faces with high or low levels of make-up.

Overall, made-up faces were rated as less attractive than faces that were less made up. Older participants and those who had not been drinking  gave higher attractiveness ratings than those who were younger or drank alcohol. Alcohol increased the attractiveness of mature faces with high levels of make-up compared to mature faces with low levels of make-up. Alcohol and make-up did not affect attractiveness ratings for immature faces.

Both mature and immature faces were judged to be older than they were by about three-and-a-half years on average. The mature faces were judged to be older than the immature faces, and faces with high levels of make-up were also judged to be older. Women who had drunk alcohol tended to find the mature and immature faces more similar in age than women who had not drunk alcohol. Consuming alcohol had no affect on men’s estimates of the age of the faces.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers suggested that “even heavy alcohol consumption does not interfere with age-perception tasks in men, so is not of itself an excuse for apparent mistaken age in cases of unlawful sex with a minor.”

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

The study suggests that alcohol intake may not affect men’s age perception. However, the study has a number of limitations:

  • The participants were not randomly assigned to having drunk alcohol or not and so the groups may not have been balanced for factors that may have affected the results.
  • The faces were digitally made-up and altered to represent different ages. These images are experimental and may not accurately reflect how well people can judge the age of real people in real life situations.
  • The study asked both heterosexual men and women to rate the “attractiveness” of female faces, this does not necessarily equate to sexual attractiveness.
  • The study only included female faces altered to look either 13 years old or 20 years old, the results may differ for male faces or female faces of different ages.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

'Beer goggles theory a myth'. Daily Mirror, April 20 2009

Men may not be able to blame alcohol for underage sex. The Times, April 20 2009

Beer goggles 'don't disguise age'. BBC news, April 20 2009

Time's up for 'beer goggles'. The Sun, April 20 2009

Rough morning? Don't blame the beer goggles. Daily Express, April 20 2009

Links to the science

Egan V and Cordon G. Barely legal: Is attraction and estimated age of young female faces disrupted by alcohol use, make up, and the sex of the observer? British Journal of Psychology 2009; 100: 415-427

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