A study released last week by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago finds that a little bit of alcohol (just enough to register 0.075 on a breathalyzer) can help your mind explore unorthodox solutions. Sometimes, researchers found, having a little less focus can be helpful. The report, "Uncorking The Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving" was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.
A number of tech companies permit or encourage on-the-job drinking.
"Our philosophy," says Joe Beninato, CEO of Palo Alto, California, app-maker Tello, "is that if we treat our employees like adults, they'll respond accordingly." As on Madison Avenue, workers work long hours. "They're here morning, noon and night," says Beninato. Tello makes available a wide variety of beverages, including alcohol. When the company scores a victory, he says, "We celebrate them with champagne or a shot of whiskey."
When, for example, Tello got word in February that its consumer feedback app for mobile phones had been chosen for inclusion in Apple's online store, "We had a bottle of High West's Bourye" (a blend of bourbon and rye). "We all had a little," he says, even though the hour was 11 a.m.
At customer review website Yelp's headquarters in San Francisco, not only is there beer, but the keg dispensing it is intelligent. Dubbed a kegbot, it requires each drinker to sign-in before it will dispense and keeps track of each employee's consumption. As a Yelp VP for engineering explains on Yelp's official blog, the kegbot is "controlled by an iPad app, [so] you can tell how much beer is being emptied, as well as leave a 5-star review of your brew."
At crowdsourcing employment company CrowdFlower in San Francisco, marketing manager Mollie Allick confirms that, "Yes, we have a refrigerator full of beer" (and soda). There's also a fully-stocked kitchen. "We're all adults, and people drink at their own discretion."
Here, too, employees work long hours, and the line between work and life can get a little blurred. If somebody's going to be putting in a long night, she says, it may not be such a bad idea to have a beer. Does she think there's any payoff in improved problem-solving? "That's kind of a stretch," she says. "But I wouldn't say it hinders creativity."
Whether alcohol helps or hinders problem-solving, says professor Dalton Conley, dean for the social sciences at NYU, is a matter of degree: "It's a fine line to walk." If consumed in moderation, alcohol, he says, shuts off the self-censoring aspect of the brain.
"That could allow for more creative inspiration." Making it available at work might also serve to "weed out" workers who cannot keep their drinking moderate. "An alcoholic may not last long at place where people are drinking."
He sees employers' offering their workers alcohol as part of a larger trend: In a knowledge economy, he says, productivity "comes in fits and starts, not on an hourly basis."
The more relaxed and homey the atmosphere at work, the longer knowledge-workers will remain, and the better the odds that inspiration will strike while they're in harness. "It may work just as well for an employer to offer free food or free dry-cleaning" as to offer workers alcohol, thinks Conley; but the alcohol "might loosen them up a bit."