Alcohol myopia and the distracting effects of hair in face recognition

Alistair Harvey, Danny Tomlinson

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Background: According to alcohol myopia theory, alcohol reduces cognitive resources and restricts the drinker’s visual attention to only the most salient aspects of a scene. As hairstyles are often salient and serve as important facial recognition cues, we consider whether alcohol restricts attention to the external region of unfamiliar faces upon initial viewing.

Aims: Participants intoxicated with alcohol during the encoding of unfamiliar faces were expected to be poorer than more sober counterparts at recognising just the internal but not external features of those faces at test.

Methods: Sober and intoxicated patrons of a nearby bar (n = 76) were shown a sequence of 21 full face photos. After a filled five-minute retention interval they completed a face recognition task requiring them to identify the internal, external or full face region of each study face among a sequence of 21 previously unseen (part or whole) faces.

Results: Alcohol had no effect on full face recognition but, as predicted, higher breath concentrations were associated with poorer discrimination of internal but not external face regions.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that alcohol restricts unfamiliar face encoding by narrowing the scope of attention to the exterior hair region of unfamiliar faces. This has important implications for drunk eyewitness accuracy, though further investigation is needed to see if the effect is mediated by gender, hair length and face feature distinctiveness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)237-244
JournalJournal of Psychopharmacology
Issue number2
Early online date22 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2020


  • Alcohol intoxication
  • alcohol myopia
  • eyewitness memory
  • face recognition


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