Beer.BottlesIt’s no secret that drinking is contagious: if your friends are binging or abstaining, there’s a good chance you’ll follow suit. But a fascinating study on early view at the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research shows just how far this influence goes – and also shows that the social effect on alcohol consumption happens largely outside of our awareness.

If you struggle with alcohol addiction, the implication is obvious: be especially careful in groups that are drinking. In fact, many sponsors encourage recovering alcoholics to completely avoid locations and events where alcohol is central.  But if your friend struggles with alcohol, the finding is equally important: your drinking may be putting your friend at risk, without either one of you knowing it.

Instead of pairing a subject with a stranger in a lab, this study is the first to explore the effect with real friends in a bar. Unbeknownst to the other, one was told to drink only alcohol or only soft drinks and then pairs of friends played a distracting social game. During the game, friends were given a drink menu with the choice of beer, vodka-coke, white wine, water orange juice, soda or lemonade. The researcher acted as bartender and friends had time for two rounds.

Forty minutes later, 88 percent of the friends whose companions drank alcohol only consumed alcoholic drinks themselves. But only 30 percent of the friends whose companions abstained ordered alcohol for both rounds. That’s nearly three times the consumption in friends of drinkers than non-drinkers!

Then when asked what had influenced their drink choices, only 19 percent of participants thought their friend’s choices had influenced their own. Despite the stark difference in drink choices, friends didn’t know why they had chosen alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks – they were just acting “naturally” in the social situation and they accidentally or subconsciously mimicked their friends’ choices.

This is starkly different from past tests, in which the strong social influence on alcohol consumption has been blamed on subjects wanting to make a good first impression on a stranger, or on the artificial influence of a lab environment. But here people drank and played games with friends in a bar setting.

“This has implications for individuals attempting to cut down their alcohol consumption as, unless educated about the strong influence peers have, a significant number of individuals may underestimate or be completely unaware of this influence,” the authors write.

This study emphasizes what we have known – that we all are subconsciously influenced by the people around us.  And we frequently make choices so that we feel more “natural” in the environment we are in.  The study carries a cautionary message for people in recovery, especially in early recovery.  You must have heightened awareness of how others’ drinking affects your own.  Conversely, for those of us attempting to support our friends in recovery, we must harbor an increased sensitivity of how our drinking might affect that of a loved one.  This awareness and subsequent behavioral change can help you counteract these unconscious influences.

When drinking in a group, be aware that you have a choice. An unvarnished recognition of the hidden social influence of drinking on you can help you stay sober.

Eric Schmidt is the CEO of New Roads Treatment Centers, affordable drug treatment programs for young adults.