There are many reasons people like alcohol. It makes things seem more positive by making it harder to anticipate negative consequences, and it also causes models playing beach volleyball to instantly appear in your backyard. Anybody who has dared to let their BAC approach .1% could also tell you that alcohol changes the way you think about goals, and a new study suggests that alcohol does this by causing you to focus on a goal’s desirability rather than its feasibility.
We investigated whether consuming alcohol leads people to disproportionally focus on the desirability rather than feasibility of important personal goals. Students named an important personal goal and then either consumed alcohol or a placebo. Thereafter, we asked them to freely think about their goal and to write down their thoughts and images. We content-analyzed students’ elaborations with regard to what extent they focused on the goal’s desirability and on its feasibility. Intoxicated students wrote more about aspects of desirability and less about aspects of feasibility than those who consumed a placebo. The results suggest that this effect is one mechanism by which alcohol intake leads people to feel committed to personal goals despite low feasibility of attaining these goals
What’s interesting is that there are certain situations where this distortion leads people to behave more efficiently. For example, when sober, people often avoid the low-feasibility high-desirability situation of successfully finding a new romantic partner because they focus on the likely (and feasible) cost of a depleted ego and not on the unlikely but highly desirable benefits of a lifetime of romantic happiness. Generally the expected value of these benefits still outweighs the expected costs, but it is only when alcohol creates a focus on desirability that people realize this.
In other words, for people who are bad at cost-benefit analysis because they are too risk-averse, alcohol can occasionally nudge them to make better decisions by shifting the lens through which they view costs and benefits from one that focuses on feasibility to one that focuses on desirability. (Emphasis on occasionally. This probably is not the case when it comes to deciding whether to toilet paper you boss’ house.) On the other hand, for people who do a good job weighing the desirability and feasibility of certain outcomes, alcohol is less likely to be beneficial.
On a broader and more futuristic note, I think the kind of feasibility-desirability tradeoff the study touches on is the type of thing kids will/should be learning in schools 50 years from now. Because kids will be able to learn physics or computer science from free open-source technology, the goal of formal education will be to teach them how to make the right decision about what they should go teach themselves.