Brain and Body

New Research Shows That Just the Smell of Alcohol Is Enough to Break Down Willpower

March 22, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Man sniffs wine
Photo credit: chispita_666/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Exploring how the senses influence addictive behaviors could lead to better treatments.

According to a new study by researchers from Edge Hill University, even the smell of alcohol can make it harder for people to control their behavior.

The team carried out a computer-based study and asked participants to wear a face mask that was either laced with alcohol or a non-alcoholic citrus solution.

Then, the study volunteers were asked to press a button when either the letter K or a picture of a beer bottle appeared on the screen they were watching.

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The researchers measured how many times the participants incorrectly pressed the button, causing a “false alarm.” They say this behavior is a measure of an individual’s power to hold back from an action when they are expected to.

Unsurprisingly, these “false alarms” were higher among the participants who wore the mask laced with alcohol, according to the results published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

"We know that alcohol behaviours are shaped by our environment including who we're with and the settings in which we drink,” said Dr. Rebecca Monk, a senior lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University, in a press statement.

She says that this research is the team’s first attempt to explore how other triggers, like smell, can interfere with someone’s ability to refrain from a certain behavior.

“For example, during the experiment it seemed that just the smell of alcohol was making it harder for participants to control their behaviour to stop pressing a button,” she said.

Another researcher on the team, Edge Hill Professor Derek Heim, said that studies of this nature could help scientists and doctors better understand addiction and substance abuse.

"This research is an early laboratory based effort that, whilst promising, needs to be replicated in real world settings to further its validity" said Heim.

"Our hope is that by increasing our understanding of how context shapes substance-use behaviours, we will be able to make interventions more sensitive to the different situations in which people consume substances."

Addiction is a complex disease, and by better understanding the ways in which the brain is triggered by outside influences, hopefully researchers can create better treatments tailored to an individual’s unique needs.

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