The Four Loko Effect

May 25, 2011

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds


Name: the Four Loko Effect.


Definition: a dramatic increase in visits to the ER by wasted 20-somethings.


And the cause? In case you've been living under a very dry rock for the last couple years, Four Loko is... or I should say, was... a popular alcoholic  energy beverage that had four main ingredients: taurine, guarana, 12% alcohol and caffeine. The "Four Loko Effect" was the sensation experienced on drinking this charismatic beverage in which the intoxicating effects of the alcohol would seem to be lessened, leading to increased consumption... and increased injuries later on. 


The reason this was believed to occur was, of course, the caffeine. If alcohol is a depressant and caffeine is a stimulant, it only seems logical that they must cancel each other out. Working on this purely arithmetic basis, the FDA ordered that all caffeine be removed from alcoholic beverages and Four Loko as we know it was destroyed (though a thriving black market rose up to fill the void).


But as with most things, the scientific explanation of the Four Loko Effect may not necessarily be the most intuitive. A new study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science is suggesting that Four Loko's caffeine wasn't the culprit at all, but it's fruitiness. Thanks to a phenomenon known as the "situational specificity of tolerance," the effects of alcohol are heightened if paired with unfamiliar or unusual situations and flavors, when compared to those we're familiar with. 


Because the Four Loko-alcohol mix has such a unique flavor, in comparison to say, Coke, we experience significantly increased drunkenness. And, I might add, the fruitiness of Four Loko has yet to be controlled by the FDA... 


So maybe there's no need to pour one out for Four Loko just yet! And you know what this means: it's time for some field research.



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