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Rosé coloured glasses?

by on 2015/03/17

The Daily Mail recently reported on a paper in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, with the headline, “How drinking ONE glass of wine improves your looks: Booze can make you beautiful – but stay away from that second glass”. They claim that one glass of wine can increase attractiveness by making cheeks rosier, pupils more dilated, and facial muscles more relaxed. However, two glasses of wine will take things too far, giving you a red face and a slack expression. So should you be careful to stop after one drink at the pub tonight?

What did the media say?

Although the Daily Mail didn’t mention whether or where the research was published, they did link to their source of information—another piece of journalism by Live Science, which did mention the journal name. A comparison of the two articles highlights some inconsistencies. The original Live Science article said that the study did not determine why people looked more attractive after one glass of wine; the authors speculated that it could be pupil dilation or cheek rosiness, but the study itself made no attempt to measure these factors. In contrast, the Daily Mail article presented these speculations as fact. Indeed, one of the bullet points at the beginning of the article stated:

Scientists claim that wine and other alcohol can dilate pupils, bring on rosy cheeks and relax facial muscles to make a person appear more approachable.

Later in the article, these same points are presented as mere speculation, however.

What did the research actually say?

Looking at the actual data paints a somewhat different picture than the articles above. First, when people were asked to choose which face in a pair of sober versus mildly intoxicated faces was more attractive, they chose the mildly intoxicated face only slightly more than chance (54% of the time, on average) and this effect was not statistically significant (the 95% confidence interval ranged from 50–59%). When shown sober versus more intoxicated pairs, the intoxicated image was chosen slightly less than chance (47% of the time, on average), but this was also not a reliable effect (the 95% confidence interval ranged from 43–51%).

However, when the researchers analysed the strength of preferences in addition to their direction, the mildly intoxicated faces were judged, on average 0.22 points higher (out of a maximum possible 7-point difference) than the sober faces (95% confidence interval = 0.09–0.36), while there was still no difference between sober and more intoxicated photos.

Facial colour was directly measured between the photographs, showing that skin was redder and darker in the mildly intoxicated image than in the sober images. However, they didn’t find any significant differences in redness and darkness between the sober and more intoxicated images, or between the slightly and more intoxicated images. That is, the mildly intoxicated images were the reddest and darkest in the group, suggesting that two glasses of wine doesn’t make your face “too red”, as suggested in the media reports. Additionally, these colour changes are not necessarily driving the changes in attractiveness ratings. While previous research has shown that increasing redness in face images does increase their attractiveness, those findings are from research that manipulated skin colour across the whole face, while alcohol consumption may not alter skin colour uniformly and could lead to different patterns of attractiveness. The authors fully admit these limitations, stating:

First, we cannot say with certainty whether the effects we observed are due to the effects of alcohol on facial colouration, or operate via some other mechanism (e.g. facial expression). While our analysis of colour change supported this as a potential mechanism, our study was not designed to support a formal mediation analysis.

What is the bottom line?

Small amounts of alcohol consumption may make you slightly more attractive, but these effects are very small. So don’t feel that you have to drink a glass of wine to enhance your appearance.

Van Den Abbeele J, Penton-Voak IS, Attwood AS, Stephen ID, Munafò MR (2015). Increased Facial Attractiveness Following Moderate, but not High, Alcohol Consumption.. Alcohol and Alcoholism. DOI:10.1093/alcalc/agv010

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