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The Mere Smell of Alcohol Can Negatively Affect Behaviour

The smell of alcohol can lower a person’s self-control, says a paper published in the journal Psychopharmacology.


Alcohol is known to impair human judgement if it is consumed in excessive amounts. This is why people are forbidden from driving after having had some drinks because they will no more be able to control their behaviour and movements. Now, a new study suggests that the smell of alcohol is enough to lower the level of control a person exerts on his behaviour.

Researchers from Edge Hill University based in the UK have found that alcohol could attract people to consume it because of its smell making it harder for people to control themselves. Their main aim was to understand how visual and olfactory cues pertaining to alcohol would affect the ability to control one’s attention to alcohol (inhibitory control); one of the authors, Dr. Rebecca Monk, explained that they wanted to explore how triggers like smell would interfere with the ability to say no.

Previous studies have demonstrated how the environment determines, to a certain extent, alcohol-related behaviours. For instance, in an “alcohol-salient environment”, people might be physiologically aroused through salivation by the sight of alcohol. Other cues characterising this type of setting have also been said to have some degree of influence on alcohol consumption — these factors will grasp the attention of the people without the latter’s conscious intention. Furthermore, the more a person consumes alcohol, the more will his attention be retained by the cues.

For the new study, participants were asked to wear a scented face mask while performing a task. They were divided into two groups: some had a mask smelling of alcohol while others’ had a non-alcoholic citrus solution embedded in it. The tasks entailed pressing a button when seeing the letter K or the image of a beer bottle on a screen; incorrect button-pressing would be dismissed as a ‘false alarm’, implying that the person displayed less control on his behaviour.

The results show that those wearing masks with the alcohol scent would be the ones to register the false alarms. Apparently, the sight and sound of alcohol trigger cognitive responses such that one becomes more likely to consume it.

While the findings have yet to be confirmed, they might potentially shed light into the phenomenon of addiction and substance abuse, says coauthor Professor Derek Heim. A better understanding will equip researchers with the necessary knowledge to construct intervention programs that are more adequate to assisting victims of addiction.


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