In the spring of 2017, a study out of the Latvian University of Sigulda, which claimed gin increased metabolism and could help Tanqueray lovers lose weight by consuming their favorite tipple, gained escape velocity and went viral. There was a problem though. There was, in fact, no Latvian study. There wasn’t even a University of Sigulda (although, according to Wikipedia, there is a city of Sigulda in Latvia located on a “picturesque stretch” of the Guaja River Valley). The whole thing was an April Fool’s Day prank gone awry. But before being removed from the Daily Mail’s Facebook page for being entirely false, a post linking to the article about that study was reportedly shared more than 16,000 times. Just for comparison’s sake, at the time of this writing, the same page’s recent posts on the possibility of North Korea hitting the United States with a nuclear weapon and the record flood in Paris received just 150 shares and 186 shares respectively.
Anyone who even passively consumes their news online knows that the gin story is just one of many. Here are a few more: “Compound in Beer Could Help with Weight Loss,” “Study Shows Alcohol Could Actually Improve Memory,” “It’s True: Alcohol Helps You Speak a Foreign Language Better.” A video created around that last story garnered more than 8,700 shares and was viewed more than 1.9 million times. Admittedly, the headlines on stories like these, some of which do exist on Supercall, encourage sharing, especially among the 60 percent of people who don’t bother to read the article the headline is attached to. But there still seems to be something about the health benefits of alcohol that draws people’s eyes and their button clicking fingers.
Before getting into the ways in which people react to and interact with these studies, it’s worth noting that all studies related to the health benefits of alcohol are not created equal. That study on alcohol helping people speak a foreign language, for example, used a sample of 50 people. That is orders of magnitude away from a statistically significant sample size. The study about the beer compound that could help you lose weight came with the caveat that, in order for the compound to aid in your weight loss, you would need to consume so much beer you’d die from alcohol poisoning. But there are some studies that show a positive impact on ailments like heart disease that are longitudinal (following the same group of subjects), have a sample size in the hundreds of thousands, and involve consuming a reasonable amount of booze.
But, while reaction to any individual study is itself a small sample size, the way readers latched on to the phony gin story shows that the quality of the research often matters less than the perceived benefits. The root of this, according to Dr. Jared Heathman, a Houston psychiatrist, is our need to have some rational basis for indulgent behavior. “Sharing positive information about our indulgences helps us to rationalize the behavior and can change negative feelings to create a self-esteem boost.” And because, Heathman says, information that is surprisingly positive garners more interest and often more reinforcement from others, we have a particular affinity for more unbelievable headlines, like many of those listed above. Another thing likely at play is the attempt to avoid the pain caused by cognitive dissonance, that is, holding two opposing views at the same time—opposing views like “this Old Fashioned is yummy” and “drinking too many of them is bad for me.” To fix the problem, people look for information that eliminates whatever they feel is the more problematic belief—information like a doctor’s claim that whiskey can help protect against cancer.
The final component of all this, if it wasn’t evident from the way these studies are spread, is the impact and immediacy of social media. As has been pointed out many times over the last several years within the political context, social media networks allow users to filter out potentially disagreeable ideas by limiting their sources of information to ones they want to see. But more than that, they allow us to be validated in real time by other people who are like us. Dr. Heathman again: “Peers with similar indulgences are more likely to chime in and create a sense of social acceptance.” So even if someone isn’t 100 percent sure of a particular claim about red wine’s effect on memory, the cavalcade of others who rush in to affirm it with “likes” and comments will keep that person seeking out similar ideas that will result in similar positive reinforcement.
Here at Supercall, we love cocktails, we love spirits, we love wine and beer. We enjoy learning about the science and art of making alcohol, we’re endlessly fascinated by its rich history, and almost always, we think it tastes delicious. But the health benefits of drinking are not what keep us going back for another Martini. And they shouldn’t be what sends you back to the bar either.