Last April, I had fun writing a guest column for Cnn.Com arguing that having an occasional drink with your colleagues while you are at work isn't all bad:
In addition to its objective physiological effects, anthropologists have long noted that its presence serves as a signal in many societies that a "time-out" has begun, that people are released, at least to a degree, from their usual responsibilities and roles. Its mere presence in our cups signals we have permission to be our "authentic selves" and we are allowed -- at least to a degree -- to reveal personal information about ourselves and gossip about others -- because, after all, the booze loosened our tongues. When used in moderate doses and with proper precautions, participating in a collective round of drinking or two has a professional upside that ought to be acknowledged.
Now there is a new study that adds to the symbolic (and I suppose objective) power of alcohol to bring about positive effects. The folks over at BPS Research Digest offer a lovely summary of an experiment called "Uncorking the Muse" that shows "mild intoxication aids creative problem solving." The researchers had male subjects between the ages of 21 and 30 consume enough vodka to get their blood alcohol concentration to .07, which is about equal to consuming two pints of beer for an average sized man. Then they gave them a standard creativity task 'the "Remote Associates Test", a popular test of insightful thinking in which three words are presented on each round (e.g. coin, quick, spoon) and the aim is to identify the one word that best fits these three (e.g. silver).'
The tipsy respondents performed better on the test than subjects in a sober control group:
1. "they solved 58 per cent of 15 items on average vs. 42 per cent average success achieved by controls"
2. "they tended to solve the items more quickly (11.54 seconds per item vs. 15.24 seconds)"
The reasons they did better and moved faster appear to be lack of inhibition ("intoxicated participants tended to rate their experience of problem solving as more insightful, like an Aha! moment, and less analytic") and, following past research, people with superior memories tend to do worse on this task -- because drinking dulls memory, it may help on the Remote Associates Test. The researchers also speculate that "being mildly drunk facilitates a divergent, diffuse mode of thought, which is useful for such tasks where the answer requires thinking on a tangent."
I am not arguing that people who do creative work ought to drink all day -- there are two many dangers. As I warned in the CNN piece, booze is best consumed in small doses and with proper precautions. And of course people who don't or should not drink for health, religious, or other reasons ought not to be pressured to join in the drinking.
Yet, this study, when combined when with other work suggesting that drinking can serve as a useful social lubricant, suggest that having a drink or two with your colleagues at the end of the day now and then, and kicking around a few crazy ideas, might both enhance social bonds and generate some great new ideas. The payoff might include innovative products, services, experiences and the like -- if you can remember those sparkling insights after you sober up!
P.S. The citation is Jarosz, A., Colflesh, G., and Wiley, J. (2012). Uncorking the muse: Alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition, 21 (1), 487-493