The May-June issue tells how Professor Andrew Jarosz of Mississippi State University and colleagues served vodka-cranberry cocktails to 20 male subjects until their blood alcohol levels neared legal intoxication and then gave each a series of word association problems to solve. Not only did those who imbibed give more correct answers than a sober control group performing the same task, but they also arrived at solutions more quickly. The conclusion: drunk people are better at creative problem solving.
Professor Jarosz, defend your research the Business Review demanded.
JAROSZ: You often hear of great writers, artists, and composers who claim that alcohol enhanced their creativity, or people who say their ideas are better after a few drinks. We wanted to see if we could find evidence to back that up, and though this was a small experiment, we did. We gave participants 15 questions from a creative problem-solving assessment called the Remote Associates Test, or RAT—for example, “What word relates to these three: ‘duck,’ ‘dollar,’ ‘fold’?”; the answer to which is “bill.” We found that the tipsy people solved two to three more problems than folks who stayed sober. They also submitted their answers more quickly within the one-minute-per-question time limit, which is maybe even more surprising.
HBR: So alcohol doesn’t slow us down mentally after all?
It still does, but we think that creative problem solving is one area in which a key effect of drunkenness—loss of focus—is a good thing. In an exercise like the RAT, it’s important not to fixate on your first thought, and alcohol seems to help that seemingly irrelevant stuff slip in. When we asked participants how much they relied on strategic thinking versus sudden insights to solve the problems, the intoxicated people reported solving via insight on 10% more problems than their sober counterparts did. You might come to the word “bill” by methodically going through associates for “duck,” but when you get to harder problems like “cry, front, and ship,” that approach could leave you stuck a little longer on an incorrect word like “baby” before you arrive at the answer, which is “war” or “battle.” Of course, in many other areas—from working through a complicated math problem to operating heavy machinery—sober control of attention remains very important.
But our brainstorming sessions should happen in bars, not boardrooms?
If you need to think outside the box, a few happy-hour drinks or a martini at lunch could be beneficial. But I wouldn’t close the bar out, because if you get your blood alcohol level too much beyond .08, you probably won’t be very useful. And you might have trouble screening out terrible ideas.
Tipsy subjects solved 13% to 20% more problems than sober subjects did.
You brought people up to a blood alcohol level of .075. Is that the magic number?
The idea was to push them toward the legal limit. We chose men ages 21 to 30 who reported roughly the same amount of experience drinking, and we asked them to refrain from alcohol or drugs for 24 hours before the study and from food or caffeine for four hours before. When they came in, we gave them a snack—the portion was based on their weight—and then dosed them with vodka in three drinks over a 30-minute period. The ratio of alcohol to juice was always 1:3, but heavier people got bigger drinks. We then had them blow into Breathalyzers to make sure they were at the target level. However, in a subsequent study by Mathias Benedek and colleagues last year, subjects who drank until they hit a level of .03 also performed better on the RAT than sober peers.
Does it have to be a Cape Codder? I prefer red wine.
Vodka-cranberry cocktails are used a lot in these studies because you can easily give people different amounts of alcohol, and the juice masks any taste. But in the Benedek study, people drank beer. So it seems any drink will do.