Different alcoholic drinks may trigger different emotions; many of them negative

Wednesday November 22 2017

“Wine relaxes you, vodka gives you energy and beer boosts your confidence,” promises the Mail Online. This irresponsible headline was prompted by a survey of young people, which showed they associated different types of drink with different emotions. The headline didn't mention the negative emotions reported by many respondents to the survey, such as aggression or tearfulness.

Researchers used an international online survey of alcohol and drug use to investigate the emotions people aged 18 to 34 said they experienced when drinking spirits, beer, red wine or white wine. They included responses from 29,836 people from 21 countries.

People were more likely to say they experienced any type of emotion while drinking spirits, including feelings of energy, confidence, sexiness, aggression, restlessness, tearfulness and illness. People were most likely to say they felt relaxed or tired after drinking red wine.

Levels of alcohol consumption also affected the results. Those who were dependent on alcohol were most likely to link any type of alcohol to an emotional response (both positive and negative). Women were more likely to say they experienced any type of emotion while drinking alcohol, with the exception of aggression.

We don't know whether different types of alcohol caused different emotions. Other factors are likely to be involved. It could be, for example, that people drank spirits while out dancing, which might make them feel energised, and drank red wine at home watching TV, when they were tired.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Public Health Wales and Kings College London. It was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal BMJ Open, which is free to read online. No information was given about funding.

The reporting in the UK media was generally poor and in some sections, irresponsible. Many headline-writers and reporters seized the opportunity to say the study confirmed urban myths, which wasn't the case.

“Gin really does make you more tearful than beer or wine,” reported the Daily Telegraph, although the study asked only about spirits, not gin specifically.

The Mail Online suggested throughout its article that the type of alcohol has a direct effect on the emotions experienced.

The Times ran a misleading headline, saying: “Why a tipple on a night out on the tiles raises spirits,” accompanied by a contradictory photograph of a man lying drunk on the ground.

The Guardian did point out limitations in the study and said that the reasons for emotions are likely to be “complex”.

What kind of research was this?

The study was a cross-sectional, opportunistic online questionnaire, promoted through the media.

This means the researchers did not select the people who took part in the survey, so we don’t know whether they are a representative sample of drinkers in any of the countries included. This could mean that the study's results have been skewed by selection bias.

This type of research is useful as an initial exploration of a subject, but more focused and reliable studies are needed to know how robust the findings are.

What did the research involve?

Researchers used data from the Global Drug Study, an online questionnaire carried out between November 2015 and January 2016. The survey, in 11 languages, was promoted in 21 countries.

It asked people about the emotions they experienced while drinking one of four types of alcohol. It also asked how often people drank, and which drinks they chose in different settings.

Researchers restricted their analysis to responses from 29,836 people, aged 18 to 34 who reported drinking all four types of alcohol in the questionnaire at some point in the past 12 months and who had a different favourite drink type depending on whether they were at home or out. They also only included people who came from a country with more than 200 survey respondents.

The drinks included in the survey were beer, red wine, white wine and spirits (types of spirits were not specified). People were asked if they had felt any of the following while drinking them:

  • positive emotions: energised, confident, relaxed, sexy
  • negative emotions: tired, aggressive, ill, restless, tearful

The researchers analysed the results, taking into account people’s age, sex, country and education level.

What were the basic results?

People were most likely to report having felt any of the following emotions while drinking spirits:

  • energised (58.36%, 95% confidence interval (CI) 57.80 to 58.92)
  • confident (59.08%, 95% CI 58.52 to 59.63)
  • sexy (42.42%, 95% CI 41.85 to 42.98)
  • aggressive (29.83%, 95% CI 29.31 to 30.35)
  • ill (47.82%, 95% CI 47.26 to 48.39)
  • restless (27.81% 27.30 to 28.32)
  • tearful (22.24% 21.77 to 22.71)

They were most likely to report feeling relaxed (52.82%, 95% CI 52.23 to 53.37) or tired (60.08%, 95% CI 59.52 to 60.63) while drinking red wine.

Women were more likely to report any type of emotion, positive or negative, with any type of alcohol. The exception was aggression, which was more commonly reported by men (36.97% of men compared to 31.27% of women).

Those who drank more heavily were also more likely to say they experienced both positive and negative emotions with alcohol. This was most striking with aggression – those who showed signs of alcohol dependence were six times more likely to say they felt aggression while drinking (adjusted odds ratio 6.41, 95% CI 5.79 to 7.09).

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers said the study “represents an initial exploration of alcohol's perceived relationship with emotions on an international basis, across a large sample of young people.”

They speculate that people's emotions are also likely to be affected by their mood before drinking, the speed and quantity of alcohol they drank, mixed drinks and activities such as dancing and socialising.

Conclusion

Studies about alcohol, especially those that seem to back up existing stereotypes, often attract a lot of media attention, whether they're about red wine and heart health, or gin and feeling emotional. But it's important not to let the myths get in the way of the facts.

This study is useful in that it can help health campaigners understand why people choose a type of alcohol in a certain situation. However, the reasons why people associate different types of alcohol with different emotions are likely to be complicated.

Spirits are much stronger in terms of alcohol by volume than wine or beer, which may lead to people drinking more alcohol more quickly. They may also be less likely to be consumed with food than wine or beer. That might explain why people feel more emotional when drinking spirits.

The social situation in which people drink and the expectations they have when they choose a drink are also likely to affect their emotions.

Dancing or socialising may make people feel energised and confident, compared to sitting on the sofa watching television. The drinks we choose for each situation may reflect how we want to feel.

The study has a number of limitations. Although large, it was self-selecting, so we don't know how representative the people who took the survey were of the general population.

It relied on people's memories of how they felt while drinking, which may not be entirely accurate. We don't know how much alcohol people had drunk on the occasions they recalled, so we can't tell whether the amount varied by the type of alcohol.

It is clear from the study that people associate a range of emotions – good and bad – with drinking different types of alcohol. The emotional impact of drinking alcohol is another aspect to consider when thinking about not drinking to excess.

To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level if you drink most weeks:

  • men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis
  • spread your drinking over three or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week
  • if you want to cut down, try to have several drink-free days each week

Fourteen units is equivalent to six pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.

Read more tips about cutting down

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Choices