Using the lost letter technique to measure real-life behavioral effects of alcohol use

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Introduction and aims: People’s behaviors after alcohol use are more extreme and alcohol has a narrowing effect on a person’s cognitive capacity. We tested this effect, making use of the Lost-Letter Technique (LLT), in which the return rate of “lost letters” by public mail is used to measure altruistic behavior. We hypothesized that return rates would be lower when people are under the influence of alcohol, and that an anti-alcohol prime in the address would even further decrease return rates.

Design and methods: 768 letters were dropped, half of those at times when some degree of intoxication was likely versus when sober passers-by were common. Three different addressees were used to convey an anti-alcohol cue, a charitable cue, and a neutral cue.

Results: The average response rate was 33.1%, and was significantly lower during late bar hours than during lunch hours (20.3% versus 45.8%). Also, when envelopes were found by people who were more likely to have consumed alcohol, anti-alcohol cues gained significantly lower response rates (12.7% versus 23.1%).

Discussion and conclusions: This study confirms that alcohol use causes less altruistic behavior and different responses to alcohol-related cues, suggesting that LLT is a promising method to study people’s behavior. Future research could also focus on other substances, (mood-)states, and technology as a means of data collection.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)42-46
JournalJournal of substance use
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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