People often claim that different types of alcohol affect them in different ways. Red wine, for example, makes them sleepy. After a couple shots of tequila, they’re ready to party. If you know a little bit about chemistry, you might be kind of skeptical about this, and for good reason. The active ingredient in red wine and tequila is the same: it’s ethanol. Which should mean that the drinks do essentially the same thing to your body and your brain. But when it comes to what we feel and how we behave, it’s not always just about the chemistry. Psychology is more complicated than that. And some researchers think there might actually be some truth to the idea that different drinks have different effects. It’s not because of the drinks, though. It’s because of our experiences or expectations while we’re drinking them. The cultural association between certain drinks and different behavioral or emotional responses is more than anecdotal— it’s backed up by data, like in a 2017 paper published in the journal BMJ Open.
The study pulled data from the Global Drug Survey, an international survey that asked people, among other things, about their emotions while drinking various types of alcohol. The researchers included responses from almost 30,000 people from 21 countries, all between the ages of 18 and 34, who said they drank beer, spirits, red wine, and white wine in the past year. People were most likely to report feeling relaxed or tired while drinking red wine, and hard liquor was most likely to elicit feelings like aggression and restlessness. And more than 40% of the respondents said liquor made them feel sexy. So there was definitely a difference— although, as the researchers noted, all this shows is that people associate different kinds of alcohol with different emotions. It doesn’t mean that those alcohols are causing those emotions, and there are all kinds of possible reasons for the relationship.
One might be where the drinks were consumed. The survey results showed that people were more likely to drink alcohol types that made them feel energized when they were out, and were most likely to drink things that make them tired and relaxed when they were at home. If you usually drink red wine when you’re relaxing at home, then of course it’s going to seem like a relaxing sort of drink. There’s also a lot of research that shows the way that we feel after drinking depends on the environment we’re in while we’re drinking, or on our expectation of what alcohol does. For example, take a 1985 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, where researchers gave 98 men one of two things: Some drank enough vodka tonics to get their blood alcohol levels to .10, a little higher than the legal limit for driving in the U.S. The rest had a placebo—tonic water mixed with a tiny bit of vodka, so it had the taste and smell.
The subjects in each group were either left alone, or with a bunch of other people, and the setting really mattered. When they were with other people, participants who drank the real stuff tended to report feeling more drunk than they did when they were alone. Even the people who drank placebo reported more physical reactions to it when they were in a group. Drinking alcohol alone still led to higher measures of intoxication than drinking placebo in a group, so the chemical prompt was stronger than the social one. But the environment is a powerful thing. And so are expectations. Associating different types of alcohol with different emotions is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because our expectations shape our reactions to most things. We’re constantly filtering what we’re seeing, feeling, or hearing through our preconceived notions. Ever eaten something you thought tasted good until you found out what was in it? The same type of thing can happen with alcohol, where your reaction shifts based on what you expect to feel.
In that 1985 vodka study, people who had more expectations around alcohol —measured by questions like “Alcohol enables me to have a better time at parties,” and “Alcohol makes me feel better physically”— were more likely to report pronounced effects of alcohol, and that was true whether they were drinking real vodka tonics or not, at least for a little while. And expectations around alcohol start early. Long before they start drinking, even kids in elementary school have ideas about what the effects of alcohol are going to be. Ads, movies, and older friends all reinforce the stereotypes behind different drinks. Your expectations are already set when you crack open a bottle, so you’re more likely to feel the way you think you’re gonna feel. That said, if you feel like different types of drinks make you feel different things, it might not be entirely in your head.
There is a possible physiological explanation for it, although it has more to do with the alcohol content than the type of drink—because again, ethanol is ethanol. We know that people tend to experience the euphoric effects of alcohol as their blood alcohol content is rising, and feel tired or depressed as their blood alcohol content is going down. And in general, once your BAC gets above about .05 or .06, the depressant effects of alcohol start to kick in. Hard liquor has a high alcohol level, and people often drink it quickly, as shots. And that can cause blood alcohol levels to rise quickly, making you feel more upbeat. Meanwhile, beer or wine have lower amounts of alcohol, so you’re drinking them slowly over time and you might not get that euphoric rise. But they can also keep your your BAC within the sweet spot before the bad mood hits. Still, even if this is part of what’s happening, it’s about the alcohol content, not the type of drink. And there doesn’t need to be anything going on chemically to change how you feel when you’re drinking. It’s your environment and your expectations that really matter.
So, it’s not just a myth. If you’re taking shots in a bar to get hyped up for a night on the town, you’re probably more likely to feel ready to party. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! Alcohol can affect the brain and body in all kinds of ways, but it can be hard to tell when that becomes a problem. If you’d like to learn more about when too much is … too much, you can watch our episode about alcoholism. .