In a series of related studies, researchers explored how environment affects perceptions of alcohol and drinking behavior. When music is playing, wine tastes sweeter, women drink faster, and both men and women are less able to gauge the strength of their drinks. The three separate studies were conducted by a team of researchers led by Lorenzo Stafford of the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom with the helpful (and very willing) participation of college students.

“It may seem obvious to state that human perception is rarely (if ever) unisensory but instead a combination of the senses,” wrote the authors in a study published recently.

Study One: Taste

For their first experiment, conducted just last year, the researchers examined whether background distraction could alter taste perception of alcohol.

Understanding that individuals commonly drink more alcohol in a noisy environment, the researchers designed an experiment around 80 university students (69 females, 11 males) between the ages of 18 and 28. Participants were recruited using an online system yet only those who described themselves as regular consumers of alcohol, consuming at least eight units of alcohol per week, were included. The study took place between lunch and dinner times; after arriving at the laboratory, participants were blindfolded and completed an olfactory threshold test, followed by a taste test. After this, participants’ moods were registered on scales ranging from positive to negative.

Next, the participants were presented with five test drinks and instructed to sample each drink by taking one sip only, then to complete the visual analogue scales (VAS — a type of measurement for subjective characteristics or attitudes, such as sweet taste), take a sip of water, and to repeat for the next drink until all had been tasted. Prior to this, participants in the ‘shadow group’ and ‘shadow-music group’ were given practice in ‘shadowing’ a BBC news article — after listening to a newsreader for one minute, the participant had to repeat what had been said. (Participants in the shadow-music group heard the news article presented in one ear and music in the second ear.) Only once participants could complete this task adequately did they begin the main task.

For the main task, participants were instructed to sample and rate drinks while simultaneously shadowing the article and (if relevant) listening to music. (Control subjects performed the same tasks without the distractions of shadowing or listening to music.) The study lasted approximately 45 minutes. The researchers discovered music had the largest effect on altering sweet/bitter perceptions of alcohol — comparatively, alcohol strength or temperature had very little effect. And, the students’ ability to discriminate the alcohol strength was most impaired in the shadow-music group — among those most distracted.

Study Two: Volume

Having discovered how music and distraction influence alcohol perception, the researchers aimed to extend their understanding by examining the exact effect the volume of distraction created. This second study was published earlier this year.

Similar to the first experiment, 34 female and 20 male college-aged participants completed standardized tests of their senses, followed by a taste test for alcoholic beverages. Next, the researchers randomly divided them into three group: a control group, a shadow-music low volume group, and a shadow-music high volume group. Those who were to ‘shadow’ news articles practiced as in the first experiment to prepare for the main task.

What were they required to do for this study? Each participant sampled and rated the strength of alcoholic beverages while simultaneously shadowing the article and listening to music at either a high or low volume. After all drinks had been sampled, participants’ mood, weight, and height were recorded, and then the researchers paid each a small sum and sent them on their way.

After calculating the measures and results, the researchers discovered, whether played at high or low volume, music impaired the participants’ ability to discriminate alcohol strength. That said, volume did not matter, with both groups equally impaired as compared to the control group, though individuals with ‘habitually poorer taste acuity’ were particularly vulnerable to the effects of distraction.

Study Three: Speed

Building on the prior two studies, the researchers next decided to examine the effect of music on drinking speed. Does music cause people to drink faster?

For this study, 45 college students, all women, drank an alcoholic drink after being randomly divided into three groups: slow tempo music, fast tempo music, or a no music at all. The design of this experiment differed from the previous two studies, in that, the women were instructed to drink while watching a DVD of The Blue Planet, a documentary about the history of the oceans. While the control group drank and watched the film in silence, the others watched while listening to dance music by the band Justice. The slow tempo group heard a version of the song modified using the software BestPractice to produce 85 beats per minute, while the fast tempo group heard a 142 bpm version. The researchers timed how long before each participant finished her drink. After the final sip, each participant evaluated the drink and described her mood.

Those listening to music drank faster than participants who drank in silence. Music tempo, though, did not impact the speed of their drinking. Surprisingly, the control group showed a decline in negative mood, whereas the participants who listened to music while drinking did not report a similar rise in spirits. The researchers also found that those who drank faster also perceived their beverages to be stronger.

“These findings suggest a unique interaction of music environment and psychoactive effects of alcohol itself on consumption rate,” wrote the authors in an article published this week.

Sources: Stafford LD, Dodd H. Music increases alcohol consumption rate in young females. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. 2013.

Stafford LD, Agobiani E, Fernandes M. Perception of alcohol strength impaired by low and high volume distraction. Food Quality and Preference. 2013.

Stafford LD, Agobiani E, Fernandes M. Effects of noise and distraction on alcohol perception. Food Quality and Preference. 2012.