A social-attributional analysis of alcohol response

Catharine E. Fairbairn, Michael A. Sayette

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Conventional wisdom and survey data indicate that alcohol is a social lubricant and is consumed for its social effects. In contrast, the experimental literature examining alcohol's effects within a social context reveals that alcohol does not consistently enhance social-emotional experience. We identify a methodological factor that might explain inconsistent alcohol-administration findings, distinguishing between studies featuring unscripted interactions among naïve participants (k = 18) and those featuring scripted social interactions with individuals identified as study confederates (k = 18). While 89% of naïveparticipant studies find positive effects of alcohol on mood (d = 0.5), only 11% of confederate studies find evidence of significant alcohol-related mood enhancement (d = -0.01). The naïve-participant versus confederate distinction remains robust after controlling for various moderators including stress manipulations, gender, group size, anxiety outcome measure, and within-group consistency of beverage assignment. Based on the findings of our review, we propose a multidimensional, social-attributional framework for understanding alcohol-related reward. Borrowing organizing principles from attribution theory, the social-attributional approach predicts that alcohol will enhance mood when negative outcomes are perceived to be unstable and/or self-relevant. Our framework proposes that alcohol's effects within a social context are largely explained by its tendency to free individuals from preoccupation with social rejection, allowing them to access social rewards. The social-attributional approach represents a novel framework for integrating distinct, well-validated concepts derived from several theories of alcohol's effects. It further presents promising lines of inquiry for future research examining the role of social factors in alcohol reward and addiction susceptibility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1361-1382
Number of pages22
JournalPsychological bulletin
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Alcohol
  • Emotion
  • Social interaction
  • Social rejection
  • Study confederate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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