The effects of acute alcohol intoxication on the cognitive mechanisms underlying false facial recognition

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False face recognition rates are sometimes higher when faces are learned while under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol myopia theory (AMT) proposes that acute alcohol intoxication during face learning causes people to attend to only the most salient features of a face, impairing the encoding of less salient facial features. Yet, there is currently no direct evidence to support this claim.


Our objective was to test whether acute alcohol intoxication impairs face learning by causing subjects to attend to a salient (i.e., distinctive) facial feature over other facial features, as per AMT.


We employed a balanced placebo design (N = 100). Subjects in the alcohol group were dosed to achieve a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.06 %, whereas the no alcohol group consumed tonic water. Alcohol expectancy was controlled. Subjects studied faces with or without a distinctive feature (e.g., scar, piercing). An old-new recognition test followed. Some of the test faces were “old” (i.e., previously studied), and some were “new” (i.e., not previously studied). We varied whether the new test faces had a previously studied distinctive feature versus other familiar characteristics.


Intoxicated and sober recognition accuracy was comparable, but subjects in the alcohol group made more positive identifications overall compared to the no alcohol group.


The results are not in keeping with AMT. Rather, a more general cognitive mechanism appears to underlie false face recognition in intoxicated subjects. Specifically, acute alcohol intoxication during face learning results in more liberal choosing, perhaps because of an increased reliance on familiarity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2139-2149
Number of pages11
Issue number11
Early online date15 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016


  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alcoholic Intoxication/psychology
  • Central Nervous System Depressants/blood
  • Cognition/drug effects
  • Ethanol/blood
  • Face
  • Facial Recognition/drug effects
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning/drug effects
  • Psychomotor Performance/drug effects
  • Recognition (Psychology)
  • Young Adult


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