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

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posted on 06.04.2016, 09:00 by Melissa F. Colloff, Heather Flowe
Rationale 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. Objectives 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. Methods 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. Results Intoxicated and sober recognition accuracy was comparable, but subjects in the alcohol group made more positive identifications overall compared to the no alcohol group. Conclusions 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.


This project was funded by a grant from the ESRC [grant number: ES/J005169/1].



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences

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COLLOFF, M.F. and FLOWE, H.D., 2016. The effects of acute alcohol intoxication on the cognitive mechanisms underlying false facial recognition. Psychopharmacology, 233 (11), pp. 2139-2149.


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