Acute alcohol intoxication and the cocktail party problem: do “mocktails” help or hinder?

Alistair Harvey, C. Philip Beaman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Rationale: To test the notion that alcohol impairs auditory attentional control by reducing the listener’s cognitive capacity.

Objectives: We examined the effect of alcohol consumption and working memory span on dichotic speech shadowing and the cocktail party effect – the ability to focus on one of many simultaneous speakers yet still detect mention of one’s name amidst the background speech. Alcohol was expected either to increase name detection, by weakening the inhibition of irrelevant speech, or reduce name detection, by restricting auditory attention on to the primary input channel. Low-span participants were expected to show larger drug impairments than high-span counterparts.

Methods: On completion of the working memory span task, participants (n = 81) were randomly assigned to an alcohol or placebo beverage treatment. After alcohol absorption they shadowed speech presented to one ear while ignoring the synchronised speech of a different speaker presented to the other. Each participant’s first name was covertly embedded in to-be-ignored speech.

Results: The “cocktail party effect” was not affected by alcohol or working memory span, though low-span participants made more shadowing errors and recalled fewer words from the primary channel than high-span counterparts. Bayes factors support a null effect of alcohol on the cocktail party phenomenon, on shadowing errors, and on memory for either shadowed or ignored speech.

Conclusion: Findings suggest that an alcoholic beverage producing a moderate level of intoxication (M BAC ≈ 0.08%) neither enhances nor impairs the cocktail party effect.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3083-3093
Number of pages11
Early online date27 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2021


  • acute alcohol intoxication
  • alcohol myopia
  • auditory attention
  • selective attention
  • working memory capacity
  • operation span


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