Study Finds How College Drinkers Decide They’re Drunk Enough

Ever wonder how college kids decide they’ve reached the right level of “drunk?” A new study finds they use a system comparable to how a car uses cruise control, believe it or not.

Researchers out of Ohio State University turned to math (yep, math) to reach their conclusions in this experiment. First, they surveyed the nearly 1,500 University of San Diego students who participated, asking them at the beginning of a night out how drunk they intended to get. Then they tallied results of various blood alcohol content (BAC) tests throughout the course of the night. What they discovered was that the students seemed to decide when they were drunk enough, and then altered their drinking habit after reaching that point to maintain that level moving forward.

The students who wanted to feel “buzzed” felt content when they reached a BAC of about .05, while students who wanted to get “very drunk” kept drinking until their BAC reached .1. Students would turn to such habits as sipping instead of gulping their drinks, or alternating alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic beverages once they’d achieved their desired level, according to researchers.

“The way the students made decisions about drinking actually resembled the single most common feedback controller that’s used in engineering,” Ohio State engineer and professor Kevin Passino said. “It’s called a proportional-derivative controller, and it measures how far a system has moved from a particular set point and adjusts accordingly. It’s the same as cruise control on a car.”

John Clapp, a professor of social work and director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Recovery at Ohio State, is using the results the study combined with a new and even more in-depth experiment that also looks at college student drinking habits to hopefully help students from making potentially destructive decisions.

“We’re looking for the best points to intervene strategically, so that we can aid a person in their decision-making and potentially derail problematic behaviors,” Clapp said in a release.

Clapp’s newest study will involve strapping ankle bracelets that monitor BAC and personal fitness monitors to track their sleep, exercise, and other personal health habits. They’ll also take surveys on their cell phones over the two-week study period, answering questions relating to their mood or state of mind. At the end of the study, Clapp is hoping to develop an app that can help tell a person that they’ve had enough to drink.

“We could track as many as 5,000 different variables per person during that two-week period, plus all the social interactions between the people in the different groups,” Clapp said. “We’re hoping to get a very rich, complex dataset, and most social science methods wouldn’t lend themselves well to untangling all of that.”

Clapp’s first study was published in two papers in the journal IEEE Transactions on Cybernetics.