Barely legal -- new study into whether alcohol affects perceptions of age

April 20, 2009

A new study led by the University of Leicester has demonstrated that consuming alcohol did not affect how men judged the age of women. This has important legal implications if alcohol is cited as a cause of impairing judgement in cases of unlawful sex with a minor.

The research in the University of Leicester School of Psychology by Professor Vince Egan and Giray Cordan of the University of Exeter finds that young females are typically viewed as being older than they actually are, but having consumed even large amounts of alcohol does not lead a man to think they look even older. Their study concludes: "Our study suggests that even heavy alcohol consumption does not interfere with age-perception tasks in men, so does not excuse apparent mistaken sex in cases of unlawful sex with a minor."

The research is due to be published in the British Journal of Psychology in June 2009.

The researchers surveyed 240 people in bars and cafes and asked them to rate attractiveness of underage and mature females with and without makeup. Ten female faces were produced graphically using custom developed software to decrease and increase age, representing sexually immature and mature faces.

The study found: Professor Egan said: "One 'reasonable ground' for unlawful sex with a minor is mistaken age. Alcohol consumption and adult make-up are often deemed further influences on impaired perception.

"Lay psychology would hypothesize that the greater the amount of alcohol consumed by the observer, the younger the age-estimate and higher the rated attractiveness of the observed face

"We found that while alcohol consumption significantly inflated attractiveness ratings for participants looking at sexually mature faces with high levels of make-up, greater alcohol consumption itself did not lead to overestimation of age.

"Consumed alcohol had no effect on men estimating the age of either mature or immature faces."

The researchers added that, on average, the participants overestimated the ages of the faces they saw -in line with previous research which reveals an overestimation of age by 2.5 years.

"This provides further ecological validity when it is noted that many major supermarkets stipulate that a person must look at least 21 years of age before the sale of alcohol is permitted on the premises.

"Despite the fact that exact age accuracy levels are difficult to determine, the study shows that make-up and alcohol have minimal effects upon male perceptions of age, and that both genders (regardless of age and alcohol consumed) are significantly likely to over-inflate age estimations."

The authors conclude that the study highlights the 'extremely strong influence' of immature faces on attractiveness judgements

Placed into its forensic context, this study tentatively concludes that alcohol consumption and make-up use do not interfere with age-perception tasks, nor inflate subsequent age estimates.

It also concludes that given the number of other indications as to a person's age (for example build and voice), there are many cues to indicate that a person is older than they appear, so males who are meeting females socially are potentially quite able to infer if someone is under age, though they may chose to not do so.

The research was conducted in pubs, but has not explored whether these findings can be repeated in conditions that more closely replicate nightclubs or discos with the more restricted and erratic lighting conditions of those places. This is planned for a further study.
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NOTE TO NEWSDESK: You can call Professor Egan today (Monday April 20) on 0116 252 3658 up to 11am or from 2pm.

University of Leicester

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