‘Imbibing idiot bias’ is damaging to economy

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US bosses have low tolerance for those whom they regard as prone to alcohol abuse, writes Colum Kenny

The drunken moron. The imbibing idiot. That is what they think, even if it is not true. Simply holding an alcoholic drink in your hand can change how people see you. It may seriously damage your job prospects.

A study by two US academics has been receiving widespread media attention across North America in recent months, and it helps to explain why publicity about Brian Cowen’s drinking is not just embarrassing for Ireland but may have damaged our economic interests too.

The study, by Scott Rick of the University of Michigan and Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania, is entitled The Imbibing Idiot Bias: Merely Holding an Alcoholic Beverage can be Hazardous to Your (Perceived) Intelligence.

The study found that when individuals see someone consuming or merely holding a drink, they rate that person as less intelligent when the drink is an alcoholic one.

Job candidates who are entertained socially by potential employers, perhaps in the late stages of recruitment, are at particular risk of ruining their chances. In interviews set up for the US study, candidates who ordered booze were regarded as less intelligent and less worth hiring than those who did not. And this was so even where the boss ordered a drink first.

The findings have knock-on implications for young men and women who go for ordinary jobs, even where they are not taken out socially. It is quite easy now for potential employers to check social networking sites such as Facebook. Holiday snaps of you and your friends looking like drunken morons may sink your chances of employment, and you may never be told.

Reports from Cork last week suggested that young Irish women are now drinking as heavily as young Irish men. Whether or not we Irish have a bigger drink problem than other nations is often hotly contested, especially in pubs on a Saturday night. But there is no doubt that some see us as a nation of boozers, as drunken Paddies.

So when the presenter of the leading US chat show Tonight with Jay Leno screened a photo of Brian Cowen looking like an idiot, and associated him verbally with US politicians who are in that presenter’s words “drunken morons”, he was reviving a stereotype that Irish business people and others had hoped was waning. The fact that so many US cities have prominent Irish pubs means that it does not take much to trigger the association between us Irish and alcohol abuse.

Whether or not Jay Leno was being fair is beside the point. When it comes to humour, US chat show hosts tend to be more cutting about their politicians than any Irish chat show host is. If current affairs are more probing in Europe, political satire on US television can be vicious.

And before we become too precious about our own Taoiseach being mocked, we should ask ourselves if people here held back on insulting George W Bush when he was president, or Sarah Palin when she was in contention.

The problem for Ireland is that we want to retain and attract US businesses in this country, and this latest study makes it clearer than ever that US bosses have low tolerance for those whom they regard as prone to alcohol abuse. So what judgement does some US industrialist make when the head of the government offering her or him a deal is depicted in the way that Jay Leno depicted him?

And what do international financiers now think happened on the night of the big bank deal? The fact that estimates of its ultimate cost were so far off target, and that there is no minute of the meeting, may now be bundled in some people’s minds together with both the Taoiseach’s performance on Morning Ireland and Leno’s vulgar abuse of him.

It is well established that boozing leads to cognitive impairment. Only the drunk thinks that his driving is not affected by drink. Only those engaged in self-deception think that you can stay up drinking half the night and turn up fit for work early next morning.

As the authors of the new US study wrote, “In professional settings, the link between alcohol and biased perceptions of intelligence may be very costly.” For some bosses, simply seeing you choose an alcoholic drink may produce negative impressions of your intelligence, even if you only sip one glass.

Rick and Schweitzer write about the job candidate who chooses an alcoholic beverage just because the prospective boss ordered one first that, “Although conformity is an ingratiation tactic that is commonly effective, the imbibing idiot bias suggests that following the boss’s lead may backfire when alcohol is involved.”

The “imbibing idiot bias”, as the researchers call it, may include a residue of that old American Puritanism that once saw prohibition of the sale of alcohol across the US. But if some Americans might be accused of being uptight about booze, some Irish have the opposite tendency.

In any event, what really matters when we want US investment is how US business sees us. And the Taoiseach giving people reason to depict him as having a drink problem does not help. And having to apologise publicly for the quality of your work after being seen out drinking late the night before is some people’s idea of a drink problem, even if they do not believe that you are actually a drunken moron.

The Irish media was in quite a bind as to how to report what Jay Leno said on his Tonight show. Some simply feared being sued, not least because Irish libel laws are more restrictive than libel laws in the USA. Others risked it.

For RTE, the episode surely revived memories of their broadcasting of caricatures of Brian Cowen depicted in the nude that a prankster pasted up in the National Gallery last year. RTE News had later apologised “for any personal offence caused to Mr Cowen or his family for any disrespect shown to the office of the Taoiseach”. Jay Leno will not be doing likewise.

More recently, it was Ursula Halligan and TV3 who had advanced the story of Brian Cowen’s drinking at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis prior to his poor Morning Ireland performance.

Following Leno’s skit, Liveline was tied up in knots last week as Joe Duffy strained to deal with the story head-on but felt obliged to prevent callers from saying the nastiest words used by Leno, even though these were on the internet. If nothing else, the episode shows how the World Wide Web can undermine the effect of local libel and privacy legislation.

The Irish Times, too, was restrained. It described the photograph shown by Leno as one of “The Taoiseach, who appeared to be socialising”, which is surely even more of a euphemism than the UK magazine Private Eye’s renowned “tired and emotional” tag for politicians in certain circumstances. But it did not show the image, and its report made no reference at all, even a censored one, to Leno’s damning punchline.

Restraint by the media in such matters is not necessarily a bad thing, even if the public’s use of internet sites renders it redundant. But when media restraint serves others as a political shield, then it becomes part of a bigger problem. Ultimately, politicians who have a hard neck need to have a thick skin.

Source: The Sunday Independent, 03/10/10
Journalist: Colum Kenny