Bartenders, police officers, and hospital workers routinely identify drunks by their slurred speech. Several investigative groups judged the captain of the grounded Exxon Valdez oil tanker to be intoxicated based solely on the sound of his voice in his radio transmissions. But a team led by Harry Hollien, a phonetician at the University of Florida, has found that even self-proclaimed experts are pretty bad at estimating people's alcohol levels by the way they talk.
Hollien asked clinicians who treat chemical dependency, along with a group of everyday people, to listen to recordings made by volunteers when they were sober, then mildly intoxicated, legally impaired, and finally, completely smashed. Listeners consistently overestimated the drunkenness of mildly intoxicated subjects. Conversely, they underestimated the alcohol levels of those who were most inebriated. Professionals were little better at perceiving the truth than the ordinary joes. As a further test, Hollien asked actors to ham it up for the tape recorder. "They were very good at making people believe they were intoxicated when they weren't, and they were pretty doggone good at convincing the listener that they were not intoxicated when they were," says Hollien.
He thinks his research could encourage police to be more wary of snap judgments: Mild drinkers might come under needless suspicion, and seeming drunks can sometimes put up a surprisingly sober, dangerous fight. "I remember being on a train in World War II and there was a baby-faced sailor who acted real drunk. But when the patrol tried to subdue him, he suddenly turned into a Tasmanian devil," Hollien recalls.