This study found that alcohol makes people become less cautious towards strangers, thus promoting virus transmission between unconnected social groups.

The findings are important given the ongoing pandemic. It shows the need for restricting access to alcohol and alcohol using social contexts to ensure physical distancing and reduce virus spread thus protecting people’s lives.


Laura Gurrieri, Catharine E. Fairbairn (email:, Michael A. Sayette, and Nigel Bosch


Gurrieri, L., Fairbairn, C., Sayette, M. and Bosch, N., 2021. Alcohol narrows physical distance between strangers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(20), p.e2101937118.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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Alcohol Narrows Physical Distance Between Strangers



Pandemic management is likely to represent a global reality for years to come, but the roadmap for how to approach pandemic restrictions is as yet unclear. Of the restrictions enacted during COVID-19, among the more controversial surround alcohol. Like many infectious diseases, the principal mode of transmission for COVID-19 is direct respiration of droplets emitted during close social contact, and health officials warn that alcohol consumption may lead to decreased adherence to physical distancing guidelines. Governing bodies have acted to close bars before restaurants and have also specifically restricted alcohol sales, while at the same time those in the nightlife industry have labeled such actions unfounded and discriminatory. Complicating such debates is the lack of evidence on alcohol’s effects on physical distance.


In the current study the researchers employed a randomized alcohol-administration design paired with computer-vision measures, analyzing over 20,000 proximity readings derived from video to examine the effect of alcohol consumption on physical distance during social interaction.


Results indicated that alcohol caused individuals to draw significantly closer to an unfamiliar interaction partner during social exchange, reducing physical proximity at a rate with potentially important implications for public health. In contrast, alcohol had no effect on physical distance with a familiar interaction partner.


Findings suggest that alcohol might act to overcome a natural caution people feel towards strangers and thus promote virus transmission between previously unconnected social groups.

Research in context

This study shows that strangers who consume alcohol together may keep their distance initially – but draw physically closer as they become intoxicated.

Participants were asked to bring a friend to also partake in the study. The 212 participants were divided to groups. Half with their friends and half with a friend of another participant (a stranger). The pairs were assigned to either consume alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages.

The study found that friends draw closer together regardless of what they are consuming. But strangers draw closer together only when they are intoxicated with alcohol. The physical distance between these pairs decreased by about 1 centimeter per three-minute interval.

This study shows that over time, alcohol reduces physical distance between people who are not previously acquainted,” said Laura Gurrieri, study lead author and a researcher in psychology at the University of Illinois, as per Illinois News Bureau.

This finding is particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic because it suggests that alcohol might facilitate virus transmission and impede the following of social distancing guidelines.”

Laura Gurrieri, study lead author, researcher in psychology at the University of Illinois

Source Website: PNAS