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'Beer goggles' fog up sexual signals

Randy Dotinga writes: If you're looking for a hook-up, a few drinks can suddenly make other people seem more attractive -- and receptive -- than they actually are, according to two new studies that help explain the "beer goggle" effect.

First, a suds-soaked fog diminishes a guy’s ability to detect facial symmetry, a crucial component of what we think of as human beauty. When this sense is dulled, an average-looking face may seem like it belongs to a hottie, suggests research on drunk college kids in the journal Alcohol.

To make matters even worse, another study shows liquor makes guys more likely to misinterpret a friendly female glance as a bold come-on.

"The average guy tends to perceive more women as being sexually interested after a few drinks and be more likely to make mistakes about what a woman feels," says study co-author Teresa Treat, an associate professor at the University of Iowa whose finding appears in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

On the other hand, Treat found that alcohol does not affect a man's ability to differentiate between modest clothing (jeans and a sweatshirt) and come-hither attire (a short skirt and tight top).

The researchers came to their conclusions after doing their best to approximate boy-meets-girl-over-drinks scenarios without actually going to a bar.

In the experiment, 59 young men looked at photos of young women. (Ah, the sweet life of a research subject.) Previously, men and women had deemed the photo subjects to be sexually interested or just friendly and more provocatively dressed or less provocatively dressed.

The male subjects looked at the photos while sober and then after they'd downed vodka cocktails and gotten a bit shy of legally wasted. While the study design didn't allow researchers to come up with specific statistics, it's fair to say that the drinks moderately disrupted the men's ability to interpret sexual signals, Treat explains.

This matters because misinterpreting a woman's signals "could be associated with men making an advance that's not reciprocated," Treat says. That could lead to damaged egos or worse, like date rape, she says.

What's going on? When people drink, they struggle to interpret things that are subtle and demand more thinking, says Robert F. Leeman, an associate research scientist at Yale University. It appears that sexual signals -- confusing in the best of times -- fit into those categories.

What to do? Women who want to just have a good time -- and not go home with a guy -- would be smart to dress conservatively, says University of Texas psychology professor Kim Fromme. "That's the more obvious cue."

In other words: Make sure you send signals that can be picked up even through a boozy blur.

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