When this headline from The Telegraph flashed across Google Reader, I couldn't help but be amused: Scientists explain why the office party so often ends in embarrassment.

From the article:

Now scientists have come up with an explanation for why the office party is so often the cause of embarrassing and inappropriate behaviour.

Researchers have found that drinking in environments not normally associated with alcohol consumption can leave drinkers less able to control their behaviour.

The brain learns to compensate for the inhibition lowering effects of alcohol when in a familiar setting, such as a pub or at home with friends, they discovered.

However, if they drink in an unfamiliar environment such as the workplace, where they are usually sober and focused, drinkers do not benefit from tolerance and lose control of their inhibitions.

That sounds strikingly familiar...

However, many drugs (including alcohol) are known to be more potent if they are taken in an unusual context, rather than in the same environment in which they are usually taken. When consuming alcohol in ways that are not typical for alcohol consumption, its effects are intensified. Instead of the usual tolerant response to a drug, where a user needs more of the substance in order to get the equivalent effect, a larger response occurs. In a 1976 paper in Science, Siegel termed this the situational specificity of tolerance.

Environmental variables ranging from the room where a drug is administered to ambient temperatures to magnetic fields may influence an individual’s drug-related tolerance. Siegel cites several studies that demonstrate situational specificity particularly when it comes to the lethal effects of drugs. Addicts who have become tolerant to otherwise lethal amounts of a given drug (such as opiates) may experience an overdose if they take their typical dose in an atypical setting. These results have been found in species ranging from rats and mice to humans. Critically for the case of Four Loko, flavor cues can also modulate the specificity of tolerance.

Taken together, Siegel’s argument is convincing: people become especially drunk after drinking Four Loko because of the unexpected way in which it is presented: it doesn’t actually taste like alcohol. The caffeine probably isn’t the problem at all!

So, the office party is just another example of the Four Loko Effect!

Siegel, S. (2011). The Four-Loko Effect Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (4), 357-362 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611409243

Image: Flickr/Robert S. Donovan.