Boozing it up at work might have been okay back in the days of Mad Men, but today, employers prefer that their workers stay sober. What you and your bosses probably don't know is that a little drinking on the job can actually increase your creative capacity and problem-solving skills.
Because creative problems require unusual thinking to reach a fresh solution, a completely different mindset, or brain state, is needed to get answers. And when it comes to getting into that brain state, alcohol can be useful.
How? If you're seeking answers and stuck in a mental rut, alcohol intoxication can literally help you free your mind by reducing your working memory capacity.
Working memory capacity, or WMC, is the measure of how well we can control our focus. Researchers from the University of Chicago found that with a blood alcohol content of 0.07, people often zoned out while working—which, in turn, helped them perform better in creative situations.
In other words, as alcohol decreases your working memory capacity, you stop worrying about the little things that zap your focus. What's happening around you isn't as attention-grabbing as it was pre-beer.
When we're trying to focus or concentrate, we try to tune out anything that tries to divert our attention. Yet avoiding distractions causes us to miss out on creative opportunities (case in point: Thomas Edison would often "power nap" himself into a hypnagogic state, only to wake up with new ideas for inventions).
With a wandering mind that's primed for distractions, booze drinkers are able to pick up on clues and unique ideas more than their sober counterparts. The altered mental state created by drinking lets a "new" part of your brain loose, which in turn opens you up to a whole new world of ideas and solutions.
Usually, our brain's left hemisphere works the hardest, keeping us functioning and focused. The same University of Chicago study cited above also found that alcohol brings the right hemisphere of our brains into action as our ability to control our attention decreases. This redirection of brain power allows you to make deeper connections. Suddenly, it's less about keeping things together and more about finding what's different.
Having a few drinks also alters peoples' perception of how they perform while at work. Those who ingested alcohol in the University of Chicago's study believed that they discovered more insightful solutions to problems, and were confident that their answers were correct.
The boozing participants were also quicker to solve problems presented to them. While sober thinkers took their time, spending more time practicing and trying to find an answer, those who were intoxicated found solutions sooner and considered them to be intuitively derived.
Alcohol improved the speed of individuals because their lack of focus made them less likely to stick with challenging methods of problem-solving. Rather than slaving away on one problem, drinkers give up and quickly switch to a less difficult plan of attack.
An experiment conducted by Dave Birss tested just how productive employees can be while drinking.
Birss and his team split a group of advertising creatives into two groups: one supplied with endless cocktails, and one supplied only with water. The groups were tasked with brainstorming advertising campaigns. By the end of the evening, Team Booze was both more productive and more creative than Team Sober. The group of drinkers came up with 23 percent more ideas, and four out of the five ideas that were judged to be the best.
Before you tell HR that it's time to start an in-office Happy Hour, you might want to think twice. While booze may be great for creative projects and problems, it's not beneficial for tasks that require logical thinking. Unfortunately, alcohol prevents us from tackling tasks that require attention to detail or intense focus. Mechanical processes (like driving a car or typing) or following instructions to complete a task become much more difficult.
Once you've had a few drinks, you are less capable of executing your ideas. If your full attention is needed to crank out time-sensitive tasks, and your mind is wandering thanks to your buzz, you may be able to generate ideas, but your follow-through will be lacking, to say the least.
And, of course, there's always the danger of drinking too much. As just about anyone who's ever had a drink can attest to, one or two drinks can impair your judgment and lead to you drinking far more than you should. So go ahead—have one drink (or maybe two) to boost your creativity, but as the makers of Budweiser famously told us, "Know when to say when."