Attentional Myopia: In with Alcohol, Out with Mindfulness

In with Alcohol, Out with Mindfulness

“When the wine goes in, strange things come out.” – Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller

Alcohol has a reputation for causing a wide variety of effects on different people in different contexts.  We all have the images in our minds from the media or from our own experiences of the angry drunk, the flirtatious drunk, the depressed drunk, or the happy drunk.  Our own intuition as well as folk psychology and research would have us believe that this wide variety of the effects of alcohol on people is due to a combination of cultural influences and individual differences.

Our own expectations play a significant role in how alcohol will affect us.  In a study done by Assefi and Garry (2003), one group of participants were given a fizzy drink and told that it contained alcohol.  It was actually just tonic water.  Another group (the control group) was given an identical looking fizzy drink and told it was tonic water (it was).  Can you guess what happened next?  If you imagined that the people who were told that they drank a vodka tonic acted drunk, you’d be right.

As I read about this study, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a party that I attended in high school.  A few of the guys throwing the party had decided to buy a keg of non-alcoholic beer and place it conspicuously in the middle of the kitchen.  They made sure that all of the girls knew just where it was.  The guys proceeded to drink bottled (alcoholic) beer and told the girls the keg was “special” for them.  I remember watching the evening progress as the girls got continually more and more “drunk.”  Seeing as I was a bit behind the scenes, I thought it was all quite hilarious.  As an adult, I see this situation quite differently, but the phenomenon is fascinating.

Beyond expectations of how we believe alcohol will affect us in a given situation, how do we explain the all-too-common “Jekyll and Hyde” behavior of some people when they drink?  A growing body of research, based upon the alcohol myopia model, explains that when people drink, their attentional system becomes shortsighted.  Not surprisingly, the more that people drink, the more shortsighted their attentional systems become.

What this means is that as levels of alcohol rise in the bloodstream, a person’s ability to process peripheral cues from the environment grows weaker and weaker.  Essentially, there is an increased focus on what is “right in front of” the person, without taking into account the larger situational context or the “side” cues within the environment.  As PsyBlog explains, “it’s this balance between what is right in front of us and what we don’t notice around the edges that determines how alcohol affects us in different situations.”

Alcohol & Attentional Myopia

PsyBlog’s article, “What Alcohol Does to your Mind: Attentional Myopia” points out a few effects of this short-sightedness:

An Ego Boost

Alcohol tends to inflate people’s egos in ways that feel good to the person in the moment.  Attentional short-sightedness is at play with this effect of alcohol because when we drink, all of those bad thoughts, feelings, or insecurities about the self float away (i.e., into that “peripheral” realm that we are no longer paying attention to).  The result is that we feel closer to our “ideal selves.”  This is a potential reason why alcohol has addictive potential for those who may have difficulty seeing themselves positively in their day-to-day experience.

Real Problems Can Get Worse

Imagine that you’ve had a tough day and you come home and have a drink to “feel better.”  Attentional myopia can come into play in this scenario because as you continue to imbibe, you become even more focused on the problem right in front of you (yep, that one you were trying to avoid).  The more that you drink, the more that the peripheral distractors are moved away from your attention and all that you see are your problems.

Pleasure in the Moment

As we know, the situational context that we find ourselves in has an enormous impact on the way that substances will affect us.  If you are already doing something enjoyable and having a good time, the effect of continuing to drink can be that you are primarily focused on what is directly in front of you (i.e., the “fun” event/time).  This can make it easier to forget about potentially upsetting/negative peripheral cues from the environment.  An example of this might be having “such a fun time” that you are not processing peripheral cues from the environment such as a friend telling you to have some water or to cut down on drinking.

In the Zone

For some people, alcohol can result in letting go of insecurities or inhibitions that unleash a creative side.  For people like artists or writers, they may turn to alcohol as way of getting “into the zone” and focusing in on their work.

The alcohol myopia model hardly explains all of the reasons why people can act in the ways that they do when they drink.  What it does explain is the effect that alcohol consumption has on our attentional processes.  Consider the ways in which you have experienced (personally or with important people in your life) the effects of blocked mindfulness related to alcohol consumption.

Have you noticed ways in which alcohol consumption affects your ability to be fully present in the moment and to be mindfully aware of those around you?  The greatest gift that you can give to yourself and others is your fully mindful presence.  If you have experienced negative impacts of alcohol consumption on your life or important relationships, try reflecting on the ways in which you can choose to be more mindful, intentional, and responsible in your relationship with drinking.

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Featured image: Lazy weekend with a bottle of wine! by green umbrella / CC BY-SA 2.0

2 Responses to Attentional Myopia: In with Alcohol, Out with Mindfulness
  1. Mary Ross
    July 20, 2011 | 8:11 am

    This is so interesting. Love the quote. So true. (Photo is perfect, too!)
    Fascinating to understand the focus that occurs and how that magnifies a problem. “Attentional Myopia”… I hope you talk more about that. Is that what causes small problems or just annoyances to expand in your thinking after even one glass of “whatever”? And/or are these “small” issues really big ones you don’t acknowledge (even to yourself) without this false sense of confidence, letting go and extreme focus?

    Thank you! I am enjoying all of the research, concepts and presenations!

    • Laura
      July 25, 2011 | 10:47 am

      Mary – I’m glad you enjoyed this article. I thought it was interesting to consider how alcohol tends to “magnify” whatever the current focus is in such a way that it can narrow one’s attention to important peripheral cues and background information. I think that with this attentional myopia concept, it would follow that if you already have a nagging small problem/annoyance “front and center” in your attention before drinking alcohol, that the alcohol only serves to magnify it.

      I think one of the most important ideas to take away from this attentional myopia concept is that often people drink alcohol in an attempt to “get away” from their problems in some way. This concept tells us that drinking when feeling upset/anxious/whatever else only magnifies those feelings. The only way to “get away” from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is to confront them head on, directly address whatever the issue is, apply problem-solving principles if it is something within your control, or apply mindfulness principles particularly when it is not within your control. Drinking should be considered a pleasant “supplement” to an already good time/social gathering, never the “main event” and never to be used as a vehicle to escape internal suffering.

      Thank you for your comment!

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