We don’t need to reach very far to see the nonprofit applicability of this 2013 Journal of Consumer Psychology article by Scott I. Rick and Maurice E. Schweitzer. It’s also in the running for the best pre-colon title: The imbibing idiot bias: Consuming alcohol can be hazardous to your (perceived) intelligence.

TL;DR: The authors ran five different research studies to test whether a person with an alcoholic beverage was perceived to be less intelligent than a person without one. All five found a significant negative perception of subjects with alcoholic beverages. One of the studies found that even priming observers with an advertisement for alcohol caused them to judge random, non-drinking people as less intelligent.

Why should nonprofits care? Donor meals at restaurants and fundraising events very frequently include the opportunity to drink alcohol. Could a glass of wine at dinner with a donor reduce your chances of closing a gift?

Cognitive impairment

I found this part amusing. The authors follow this hypothesis, “alcohol consumption and cognitive impairment frequently co-occur,” with a citation. Yep, I’m pretty sure we can accept that one as true without digging up the cited article(1). Also, rain and puddles frequently co-occur.

Because cognitive impairment is such an obvious effect of alcohol consumption, does that color our opinion of someone who is simply holding a drink?

The studies

Study 1 had participants review print ads, either of alcohol, or of some other product. Then, in a presumably unrelated study, they had participants rate how intelligent a male actor sitting at a table (with no drink) looked. The participants primed with the alcohol ad rated the actor as less intelligent.

Study 2 asked participants to gauge the intelligence of people in two images — one of whom is holding a beer, while the other is holding a glass of water. The participants rated the subject holding the beer as less intelligent.

Perhaps the causation arrow is pointing the wrong way, (e.g., less intelligent people drink alcohol.) In Study 3 participants were asked the following question, ” Who do you think is more likely to drink alcoholic beverages on a regular basis: highly intelligent people or less intelligent people?” 60% of respondents chose “neither” and 30% chose “low intelligence.” That means that 70% don’t automatically assume that consuming alcohol is just what less intelligent people do.

Study 4 attempted to prime the observers with evidence of the subject’s intelligence, and to test whether it made a difference if the subject ordered the drink, or was just handed one. So instead of being just a picture, the subject was shown giving a scholarly presentation. Once again, when the subject had an alcoholic beverage (whether they ordered it or it was just handed to them), the observers found them less intelligent.

Study 5 moved into an environment where alcohol consumption is very common — a management job interview over dinner. And once again, observers found that the subjects drinking a nice Merlot were less hireable than those drinking a Coke.

The bad news

The most amazing thing about this study is that it’s completely at odds with what we think. In a counterpart to study 5, the researchers asked 44 Wharton Executive MBAs whether the wine or the Coke would make them appear more intelligent. Over 70% picked the wine.

One important point about the study. While the findings were significant(2), they were small.

The nonprofit perspective

Everybody I’ve talked with about this study has said the same thing: “Really?!” There are some powerful forces working against each other here, especially when a majority of people think that ordering a drink with dinner makes you look classy.

There seem to be two arguments for pretending this research doesn’t exist. The first one I’ll call social context. As presented in this 1965 article and probably hundreds of others I’m too lazy to find, anthropologists explore the complicated cultural  baggage that alcoholic beverages carry with them. When a donor orders a glass of wine, there’s definitely social pressure for you to do the same. When both of you have glass of wine together, it signals that you’re both part of the same socio-cultural group. This could be relatively more important than a slight sense that you’re less intelligent.

At a fundraising dinner at a restaurant you are considered to be the host and the prospective donor is the guest. That puts us squarely into the world of hospitality. In this context, the host not ordering a drink may have the unintended consequence of discouraging the guest from ordering one. Or worse, if the guest orders one first and the host does not, that may unintentionally signal disapproval.

To further complicate things, donors who are sensitive to excessive fundraising expenses may look poorly on development staff ordering from the fancy part of the wine list.

So, what to conclude? How important is intelligence in a fundraiser, anyway?

In the most obvious case, never, never drink too much with a donor. Ever. Second, perhaps you can engineer a way to avoid alcohol being an issue by having a midday lunch (I’m heading back to the office after this) or selecting a restaurant without a liquor license. Or, if you’re really savvy you can weigh the relative trade-off between perceived intelligence and social context or hospitality. Finally, in big mixer-style events, get a clear bubbly beverage with a lime in it. Nobody can tell if that’s a vodka tonic or a Seven-Up if they didn’t see you order it.

Read it yourselfRick, S. I., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2013). The imbibing idiot bias: Consuming alcohol can be hazardous to your (perceived) intelligence. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 23(2), 212–219. 

(1) But if you need convincing: Steele, C. M., & Josephs, R. A. (1990) Alcohol myopia: Its prized and dangerous effects. American Psychologist, 45, 921-933.

(2) It’s important to note that in statistics, “significant” has a very specific meaning. While in everyday speech we mean “having a major effect,” in the research world it means, “unlikely to be caused by chance.” In other words, if a result is significant, we can say that cause and effect are connected, and not necessarily that the effect was huge. If you want to know more, I highly recommend Sal Khan’s super-fantastic video on the subject.