Study shows 'drunk' doesn't cut it when describing intoxication

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 | 8:09 p.m. CST; updated 10:13 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 30, 2008

COLUMBIA — Drunk, hammered, tipsy, wasted.

With some in Columbia welcoming the new year with a shot or a champagne toast, these terms may be in high use after the ball drops, but the feeling they describe may vary from person to person.

According to an MU study, the term "drunk" is used too broadly by researchers when asking people to gauge their level of intoxication in surveys.

One of the study's authors, Ash Levitt, a graduate student in the department of psychological sciences, said he noticed the public has developed different terminology to describe different levels of intoxication.

“There is an over-preponderance of the term 'drunk,'” Levitt said. “Drunk is used more generally. If you say you’re tipsy, people assume you’re not as drunk. You’re not 'wasted.'”

Levitt's study focused on 17- to 24-year-old MU undergraduates and their familiarity and usage of intoxication-related words. Levitt used a Web-based approach to survey two different samples, the first included 140 males and 150 females, and the second included 73 males and 72 females. Students were given credit in introductory psychology classes in exchange for their time. All the terms were used to describe moderate to heavy drinking.

Levitt said he picked this age group because of their familiarity with alcohol.

“They know what it means to be wasted,” Levitt said.

His findings have benefits for researchers who study alcohol use.

Most studies rely on single-item assessments of intoxication and ask questions such as “How often in the past 30 days did you drink enough to get ‘drunk?’” Instead, Levitt suggests that researchers offer multiple terms for each level of intoxication in self-report studies.

He also found that women and men tend to use different terms to describe their state of intoxication. Women tend to describe themselves in terms that aren't as harsh such as “tipsy,” while men use "hammered," "ripped" and other forceful words.

Rachael Tomik, a bartender at Shakespeare’s Pizza, agrees with the study’s findings.

“Women try harder to stay composed and censor themselves,” Tomik said. “They want to tidy it up and make it sound nicer. It doesn’t seem to matter to guys.”

Levitt found that women most commonly describe themselves as "tipsy" after four or more drinks in a two-hour period, which meets binge-drinking criteria set out by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Binge drinking for men is consuming five or more drinks in a two-hour period, according to the institute.

The gentler terms could be hazardous because those who say they are "tipsy" may perceive themselves capable of driving home.

Nate Smith, who bartends at Mojo’s, said he noticed that women tend to perceive themselves as more sober than they really are.

“Women have a harder time admitting when they’re drunk,” Smith said. “Guys will just tell you."

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