Saturday, September 24, 2011

Copenhagen Phil, Ravel's Bolero, and Four Loko, or, why Irish coffee doesn't kill you.

"Copenhagen Phil" may sound like a nickname for a snuff addict, but it's shorthand for the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra. In the clip above, Copenhagen Phil assembles, flash mob style, in the city's main railroad station, and does a surprise performance of Ravel's Bolero, a piece of music to which I became addicted in my high school years, and recordings of which, I later remember reading, were supplied by the Soviet government to childless couples for its alleged--ahem--stimulative effect.

No doubt this performance had a peculiarly stimulative effect. It's one thing to go to your seat in a concert hall knowing that you're going to hear Great Music, sit patiently while the orchestra slowly assembles and tunes, applaud the conductor's entrance, hush as the baton is raised, and listen. Its another to encounter highly skilled musicians performing such music at a time and in a place that's part of the ordinary routine of your daily life. Context engenders expectations. This gets us to Four Loko.

In 2005, three Ohio State students invented a new alcoholic drink they named Four Loko. I'm going on a limb and guessing these students were guys, and that they were after what male students in my day and, I suspect, ever since, have been after: an easy way to get laid. Since they hadn't hit on the idea of inviting a woman into their dorm room and playing a recording of Bolero, they fell back on another classic, "Get her drunk." Drunk enough to overcome inhibition, but not so drunk that she passes out. So, mix in some caffeine to keep her awake. Also, disguise the taste of alcohol so thoroughly that she won't get her guard up. The resulting concoction, I've read (I haven't tried it), looks and tastes like fruit punch.

Unfortunately, like many best-laid plans, this one sometimes led not to getting laid but to lying on a stretcher in an emergency room, and in a few instances to a morgue. The first reaction was to blame the caffeine, which was thought to have some dire effect when mixed with alcohol. But alcohol and caffeine have enjoyed a long and friendly association in rum and Coke, Irish coffee, and no doubt in other mixed drinks and coffee flavored liqueurs. The true source of the problem, according to McMaster University psychologist Shepard Siegel, as reported in this Scientific American blog post by cognitive psychologist Jason G. Goldman, is that encountering alcohol in the guise of Four Loko is like walking into a railroad station and finding a symphony orchestra playing Bolero. As Goldman puts it:

When consuming alcohol in ways that are not typical for alcohol consumption, its effects are intensified. Instead of the usual tolerant response to a drug, where a user needs more of the substance in order to get the equivalent effect, a larger response occurs. In a 1976 paper in Science, Siegel termed this the situational specificity of tolerance.
This would explain why few emergency room visits are the result of drinking Irish coffee: you expect it to have an alcoholic, as well as a stimulant, effect, and you can taste the whiskey. It may also explain why so many office parties lead to embarrassment: while some of those there may be people you socialize with over drinks after work, most of them won't be, and it's not likely to be held in your usual drinking venue. Context is important.


  1. Man, I had forgotten how much fun you are to read. Aloha!

  2. Thanks, Weldon. Coming from you, that's a most meaningful compliment. Mabuhay!

    (Word verification for this comment: "badvice")

  3. Awesome post! Thanks for the link.

    One small quibble: I'm a cognitive psychologist, rather than an evolutionary psychologist.