Findings: Think of drink, memory sinks

March 7, 2003

Ever woken up the morning after a night out drinking and wondered how you got home? According to scientists from New Zealand, alcohol may not even be required - the mere suggestion that you've had a drink is enough to affect memory, writes Natasha Gilbert.

Maryanne Garry and PhD student Seema Assefi of the department of psychology, Victoria University, New Zealand, compared witness testimonies of 148 students, half of whom knew they were drinking water, the other half of whom thought they were drinking vodka and tonic but were really consuming plain tonic water with lime. The researchers found that the placebo group of drinkers were less reliable witnesses but had greater confidence in their recall ability than their "sober" counterparts.

"People were more suggestible to post-event misleading information and their memory worse when they thought they were intoxicated," Ms Assefi said.

According to Dr Garry, the study, published in the journal Psychological Sciences , shows that memory has a social component and is not simply a means to file away information like a computer. "We use memory to understand and remember events in a social setting, such as witnessing a crime," she said.

The researchers hope that their findings would help improve the rigour of police witness testimony. They claim that people are able to resist suggestion and misleading information by keeping their wits about them - even when intoxicated.

"Often people think they are more drunk than they are," Ms Assefi said.

"Being aware of this makes you less likely to be influenced by the suggestions of authoritative figures."

No more excusing drunken misdemeanours through lack of memory then. "We have more control over our memory than we realise," Ms Assefi said.

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