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Do Your Co-Workers Think You're a Drunken Idiot?

You've probably learned that it's a bad idea to booze it up while conducting business. But new research from professors Scott Rick of Michigan's Ross School and Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer might make you think twice about even holding a glass of your favorite merlot or microbrew at your next working dinner. Do so, and others will likely view you as less intelligent say the professors in their paper, which calls the prejudice the "imbibing idiot bias." Rick and Schweitzer predicted that, because alcohol consumption and cognitive impairment are commonly linked in the brain, study subjects would connect the two when viewing images of, and interacting with, completely sober people who held drinks. In six experiments, their hypothesis was proven in different circumstances.

In the first experiment, study participants evaluated photos of students who held either a beer or nothing. The participants were asked to rank the students' intelligence on a seven-point scale. The students holding the beer were judged as significantly less intelligent than those who were empty-handed. In another twist on this experiment, study subjects ranked students who held a beer as less intelligent than those who held a Coke.

To rule out the possibility that participants were deeming people dummies based on their imprudent decision to drink alcohol in the first place, study subjects in another experiment were told that the speaker in a video had either chosen his own beverage, or been given one with no say in the matter by his host. Once again, anyone associated with booze took an intelligence hit, proving that the implicit association between alcohol and cognitive impairment was to blame. In this and the other experiments, the professors performed "attention checks" that ensured that the study participants were able to recall the type of beverage they had seen.

To assess the professional consequences of being viewed as a drinker, another experiment rounded up real-life managers and had them review photographs and transcripts of a hypothetical interview held over dinner. The researchers manipulated the types of drinks ordered by the candidate and the boss to create different scenarios. Then the managers were asked to rank the job seekers in terms of how "hireable" they seemed. Even in cases where the boss drank a glass of merlot, the candidate was harshly judged for following suit, casting doubt on the notion that mimicking the behavior of a higher-up is always your best bet.

Whether you're the interviewer or the job seeker, the imbibing idiot bias is worth considering. Are you subconsciously shaving off intelligence points when the person you're recruiting orders a real drink? On the flip side, can you afford to be judged similarly in your professional interactions? That glass of water might do the trick after all.

Image courtesy Flickr user paulaloe, CC 2.0

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