Completely wasted? Or just a little tipsy? Colloquial language used to describe how much alcohol a person has consumed can often be mere descriptors, instead of actual — or accurate — measurements. One says "I'm buzzed" to indicate only slight intoxication, or "He was hammered" to indicate someone downed one too many drinks. These terms for levels of intoxication, however, should be taken seriously, as it reveals much about someone's perception of how many is too many drinks, and what is and isn't socially acceptable when it comes to alcohol consumption for each gender.

How Do People Assign Levels of Intoxication with Colloquialisms?

In a study of 145 undergraduate students, researchers examined how college students apply intoxication terms to characters in hypothetical vignettes — read online — of naturalistic drinking situations, in which each character's gender, intoxication level, and aggressive behaviors are experimentally manipulated and made clear to the reader.

If the character was female, for instance, she was described as 5'4'' and 130 lbs. while male characters were described as 5'10'' and 170 lbs. Intoxication levels varied from moderate — seven beers over three hours for men and five beers over three hours for women — to heavy, which was nine beers and two shots for men and five beers and two shots for women. Behavior was described as either aggressive, characterized by verbal aggression toward friends once intoxicated, or nonaggressive, characterized by flirting and being playful.

"Drinkers use a complex set of physical and cognitive indicators to estimate intoxication," said Ash Levitt, Ph.D., a research scientist at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. "In order to quickly and easily communicate various levels of intoxication, drinkers distill these indicators down into distinct sets of natural language terms for intoxication, such as 'tipsy' or 'wasted.' Understanding this language is important as these terms reflect levels of intoxication as well as whether individuals are accurately estimating intoxication levels when they use these terms."

Do Trends For Self-Diagnosis Carry Over When Judging Other People?

This experiment is an extension of a 2009 study, also by Levitt. "We found that self-use of terms differed for moderate versus heavy intoxication levels, and that women tended to use moderate terms, whereas men used heavy terms," Levitt commented. However, it was unclear whether the usage of intoxication terms would apply to other individuals, and if similar gender differences exist in the assignment of intoxication terms on others.

Intoxication terms that indicate moderate intoxication are "tipsy" and "buzzed," while terms implying heavier intoxication are "hammered", "wasted," and "trashed".

In this new study, the intoxication terms used to describe people in fictional situations reveal much about words we use to describe intoxication. The female participants, for instance, tended to describe people of both genders in moderate terms, regardless of whether the person described had heavily or moderately consumed alcohol. On the other hand, male participants in the study were more likely to use heavier terms, regardless of gender, instead of exclusively moderate terms.

Similarly, the 2009 study suggested that moderate intoxication terms would be applied to women described in any situation, as the women in the study described themselves in more moderate terms regardless of actual amounts of alcohol consumed. This new study, therefore, found that the 2009 study's findings held true: participants applied moderate terms to female characters more than they did to male characters in the vignettes. Even when the character was described as heavily intoxicated, participants ardently applied moderate intoxication terms more to female characters than to male characters.

This study also proved that heavy intoxication terms were applied more often to men, and remained unaffected by levels of aggression and intoxication described. The judgment of participants appeared to be based entirely on gender, as men described in vignettes as having drunk a moderate amount and showing nonaggressive behaviors were still classified by heavy intoxication terms.

Results: Could Female Tendency to Downplay and Male Tendency to Exaggerate Intoxication Become Dangerous?

The results of this study indicate how pervasive binge drinking has become, as well as how dangerously inaccurate a young adult's descriptions of intoxication can be.

"The current study showed that natural language intoxication terms are applied to others similarly to oneself," said Levitt. "Specifically, results supported previous research by showing that moderate intoxication terms such as 'tipsy' were applied to female vignette characters more than male characters, even when female characters were heavily intoxicated, and that female participants applied these terms more than male participants. In contrast, heavy intoxication terms such as 'wasted' were applied to male vignette characters more than female characters, and male participants applied these terms more than female participants."

While the immediate implications of these findings are harmless, long-term implications for society are noteworthy. "One potential real-world implication that this research suggests is that women may be at increased risk for alcohol-related consequences such as drunk driving if they or their friends underestimate how intoxicated they are by using moderate terms like 'tipsy' to describe them when, in fact, they are heavily intoxicated and heavy terms would be more accurate," added Levitt.

Sources: Levitt A, Schlauch RC, Bartholow BD, Sher KJ. Gender Differences in Natural Language Factors of Subjective Intoxication in College Students: An Experimental Vignette Study. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 2013.

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