You go to the bar, and you honestly feel like you take it pretty easy. Everyone else in your group drinks far more than you do. You came out for the social atmosphere and, while you are not against drinking, you did not really plan to get intoxicated. You have a few drinks, eat a meal and wash it all down with a glass of water.

As you decide to leave, it is clear to you that your plan has worked. Everyone else is extremely drunk and rowdy. You try to talk to them, and it’s difficult. You feel fairly certain some of them are not even going to remember what happened when they wake up in the morning.

It does cross your mind to call a cab, but that would mean coming back to get your car the next day. Since you do not feel drunk anyway, why put up with the hassle? You hop in your car and drive home.

On the way there, you get pulled over. You fail the field sobriety tests and then the breath test, and you get arrested.

You’re stunned. You honestly thought you were not intoxicated and that it was safe to drive. How could you have been so wrong?

The ranking system

Scientists have studied this, and they found that your brain essentially uses a ranking system to determine how intoxicated you are. It does not make that judgement off of your personal intoxication alone. Instead, you compare yourself to your peers.

If you are surrounded by people who are all vastly more intoxicated than yourself, you may not even think you are drunk when you really are. People often talk about being the “one sober person at the party” and about how strange it is. Even if you are not actually sober, your brain may make you think you are.

To figure this out, scientists simply asked people four questions:

  • How drunk do you feel?
  • How extreme was your drinking this evening?
  • What are the odds you will get liver cirrhosis?
  • How much of a risk is your drinking to your long-term health?

They found that people really struggled to answer these questions and that the setting made a drastic difference. A person who had three drinks around a group of completely sober people may report feeling fairly intoxicated, for instance, while a person who had three drinks around a group of highly intoxicated people may report feeling rather sober.

Your legal options

As you can see, the way your brain naturally does this can trick you into making mistakes without realizing it. If you wind up facing drunk driving charges as a result, make sure you know what legal defense options you have.