Booze really does break the ice with strangers, literally brings people closer together

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If social distancing is still one of your priorities, then you may want to avoid parties serving alcohol. A new study finds drinking really does bring people, even strangers, physically closer to one another. Talk about a literal ice breaker.

Researchers from the University of Illinois discovered drinking in social settings helps to decrease the physical distance between pairs by at least one centimeter every few minutes. However, if people are not drinking alcohol, study authors find the distance is likely to remain the same over the course of a conversation.

Researchers asked 212 young, healthy social drinkers (made up of pairs of friends) to take part in different experimental conditions. In half the cases, participants enjoyed drinks with a friend. In the other half, they drank with another participant who was a stranger to them.

Study authors also had the pairs either consume enough booze to make them drunk or only drink soda or water. The team videotaped each interaction during the experiment. Results show those who drank nonalcoholic beverages with strangers did not draw significantly closer to one another during the experiment.

“We measured distance between the individuals via machine-learning methods that detect hands, arms, legs and head position for each person in the video,” says Professor Nigel Bosch in a university release. “We used a bit of geometry to turn the pixel coordinates of people detected in the video into real-world distances based on objects of known size visible in the video.”

Social drinking in the social distancing era

Researchers note that friends tended to draw closer to each other regardless of their drink order. For intoxicated strangers however, alcohol seems to be a key trigger for social mingling.

“Participants interacting with a stranger only moved closer to that individual if they were intoxicated. The physical distance between these pairs decreased by about 1 centimeter per three-minute interval,” Professor Catharine Fairbairn reports.

Prof. Fairbairn notes researchers conducted the experiment in a spacious and quiet lab. She adds participants may have moved closer more rapidly if not for the constraints of sitting across from one another at a table.

“Folks would likely draw even closer to one another in a crowded bar with loud music when compared with our laboratory environment,” Fairbairn says. “That would have to be the subject of another study.”

“This study shows that over time, alcohol reduces physical distance between people who are not previously acquainted,” researcher Laura Gurrieri concludes. “This finding is particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic because it suggests that alcohol might facilitate virus transmission and impede the following of social distancing guidelines.”

The findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.