Friday 24 October 2014

How a stag do demonstrated a unique psychological experiment

Academic psychologists must have great fun designing experiments, particularly ones involving alcohol. There must be occasions, though, when practical and ethical considerations make experiments impossible. I wonder if this anecdote could have been conducted under experimental conditions?

A good friend of mine was best man at a stag do a few months ago. As is traditional, he racked his brains trying to think of ways to embarrass the stag, whilst getting him as drunk as possible in the shortest possible time. His idea was a work of genius. The best man later confided that he had no idea at the time whether it would work - if it didn't, the joke would have been on him - but as it turned out, it's a piece of experimental psychology worthy of any journal.

The lads had hired a house and, all being heavy drinkers, decided to do something familiar from most of our student days: a "centurion". For the uninitiated, a centurion consists of drinking 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes. The actual volume of alcohol consumed is substantial without being outrageous; it's about 6 pints, but what gets you hammered isn't so much the quantity consumed as the mechanical regularity of the drinking. One must drink a shot on the minute, every minute, for over an hour and a half. Inevitably casualties occur and vomiting after 60ish shots is perfectly respectable (I've known people to be sick on less than half that). An ideal icebreaker for the start of the stag do: relive old student days and get the whole party battered at the same time.

This was a centurion with a simple twist: whilst everyone else would plough on as normal, unbeknownst to him, the stag was fed non-alcoholic lager.

The implied reverse psychology is brilliant. Normally at a stag do, the main man would expect to get screwed over. This guy can handle his drink and fully expected to be given "dirty pints" and other horrors over the course of the weekend. His expectation was to be the drunkest member of the party. Not the other way around.

100 minutes later, a dozen battered lads staggered around the room. Several had hurled into the toilet. Handshakes, backslaps, and proclamations of undying man-love crossed the room. At the centre of it was the stag - still standing and beating his chest as one of the few to make it to the end without being sick. His hair dishevelled, he staggered around the room, a maniacal glazed look in his eye and slurring his speech. Like everyone else in the room, he was absolutely, utterly battered.

Without having had a drop of booze.

I'm told that when the bad news was given to him, the stag went very, very quiet. And took a few minutes to sober up. Of course the only observers in the room were extremely drunk themselves, but the stag himself happily admitted to feeling smashed and never once thought to question the alcohol. He remembers after about 40 shots thinking to himself "I'm not feeling too bad here" but as everyone else around him descended into chaos, he went with the flow and even now swears that he felt hugely intoxicated at the time.

For me this indicates an important aspect of group dynamics: not only to we behave how those around us do, but our own mental state is affected by the expectations of those around us. We do as others do but even our inner feelings are affected. Clearly the stag's motor functions were theoretically capable of standing up straight and speaking properly; but the behaviour of those around him, combined with what he was primed to believe, affected his body's functions significantly. Think of it in reverse - have you ever had a few drinks and been drunk on adrenaline, only to witness a nasty car accident or to come home and find yourself burgled, and manage to sober up extremely quickly?

(PS - I say this was "unique" but I wonder if it has been demonstrated somewhere before? I'd love to know)

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