Cheap drunks — those fortunate few whose biology destines them to have minimal bar tabs — are often teased for their low alcohol tolerance.

But cheap drunks also have excellent self-control — as a study published Tuesday in PNAS on alcohol-intolerant undergrads points out, cheap drunks aren’t just good at saying no to alcohol, they’re good at saying no to other vices as well.

Scientists at China’s Central South University and George Mason University came to this conclusion after offering 477 alcohol-tolerant and alcohol-intolerant Chinese university undergraduates the option to cheat at a dice game.

Alcohol tolerant people are not as good at saying no as their intolerant counterparts.
Alcohol tolerant people are not as good at saying no as their intolerant counterparts.

What the researchers were really testing was the “strength model” of self-control, which predicts that people who practice small acts of self-control repeatedly will be generally better at applying willpower than those who don’t. Just like a muscle, self-control is thought to be a skill that must be honed through rigorous training; as the authors write, “Impulse control can be acquired through practice.” A questionnaire that asked the participants how they behaved after one drink determined whether or not they frequently exercised self-control at bars. The authors hypothesized that, because the alcohol-intolerant cohort frequently practices saying no to booze, they’d be better at saying no to other things, too.

They were right: The alcohol-intolerant group — identified using a patch test — were less likely to cheat in a laboratory game testing self-control, in which winners were offered a monetary prize. The undergrads were instructed to roll their die as many times as they liked, but they were told that only the value of the first roll counted toward the prize. However, only the participant knew the value of the first roll, so they were technically free to report the outcome of their first die-roll however they liked.

Men who are good at drinking, it seems, are better liars. The alcohol-intolerant men who frequented drinking environments — that is, guys who were accustomed to saying no to booze — were significantly better at not cheating than their boozy counterparts and intolerant men who didn’t go to those environments often. In women, however, neither alcohol tolerance or intolerance nor exposure to boozy environments made a difference in how they performed. The researchers explain this anomaly by suggesting that alcohol intolerant and tolerant women exercise self-control in the same way.

This study reinforces the idea that self-control can be improved through practice, according to the researchers — previous studies have shown that men with alcohol intolerance tend to be better at exercising self-control when it comes to drinking than their booze-tolerant counterparts. “One might speculate that regular acts of self-control, such as resisting drinking or perhaps routinely exercising or waking at the same time each day, might improve one’s overall ability to resist selfish temptations,” they write. In other words, there’s hope for heavy drinkers to curb their drinking yet — it’s just a matter of practice.

Photos via Flickr / john damiani