Drunk or Sober? Harder to Tell Than You Think

A new literature review, summarized in the BPS Research Digest, concludes that “the vast majority of studies find that lay people, police officers and bartenders are in fact hopeless at distinguishing a drunk person from a sober one, at least at moderate levels of intoxication.” Even when given “more structured means of detecting drunkenness,” doctors did a poor job of assessing sobriety. Many of the signposts people use (red eyes, slurred speech etc.) are unreliable, or only reliable at very high levels of intoxication. “A variety of professions that might be expected to show substantial skill assessing intoxication do not,” concludes Steve Rubenzer, the study’s author. [%comments]

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  1. Oj says:

    i’ve always been amazed at what i’ve been able to get away with…

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  2. Jimbino says:

    If these same folks were unable to assess level of intoxication of a person after submitting him to a motor-skills test, our whole system of punishing DUI would be called into question.

    It’s about time! It has long been clear that many folks high on alcohol or other drugs can outperform stone-cold sober ones.

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  3. trace says:

    Blair apparently was drunk nightly, from 2003 until 2007 – half a bottle of wine and a martini or two every night..In his case, I think we should have been able to tell by his irrational actions, such as following Bush and Co. to ‘war’ against the wrong enemy….

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  4. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    Alcohol Intoxication is a Spectrum of symptoms that occurs gradually over time and worsens with increased intake.

    It is not a light switch.

    Everyone knows the signs of early, middle, and late intoxication, and the symptoms of one blend into other phases over a gradual period. Some people are larger, have faster alcohol metabolism, have a more resilient liver, or have more or less alcohol recpetors on their brain–everyone’s intoxication level is different.

    It is hard to tell a boisterous personality from alcohol fueled passion, unless you really know the person.

    But smelling of alcohol, slurring speech and staggering walk, coasting on the banister rail, should be pretty straighforward to a 5 year old child or a policeman.

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  5. Justin James says:

    And this is news because… ? This is common sense.

    J.Ja

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  6. Drinker & Thinker says:

    “the vast majority of studies find that lay people, police officers and bartenders are in fact hopeless at distinguishing a drunk person from a sober one, at least at moderate levels of intoxication.”

    If we are discussing distinguishing people at “moderate levels of intoxication” than I believe that an argument exists that the person is not “drunk.”

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  7. David says:

    At what level do the police have a reasonable suspicion that a person is intoxicated then? Do we need on officer breathalyzers?

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  8. Neil Goldman MD says:

    Define your terms. Intoxication for driving is defined as a BAC of 0.08. It used to be 0.10. This is a legal definition. My aunt Mary is drunk when she has 1 glass of wine. My friend Harvey remains well coordinated even after 2 bottles of wine or more.

    When I was in charge of an inpatient treatment program for alcoholism we eliminated all guessing by using a breathalyzer, but that only gave us a BAC level not the degree of drunkenness.

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