The Science Behind Four Loko
It turns out it’s not the alcohol and caffeine that gets you; it’s the psychology.
For one thing, caffeine doesn’t seem to affect the way that alcohol gets absorbed by the body. Moreover, many drugs, including alcohol, are known to be more potent if they are taken in an unusual context. In a 1976 paper in Science, Siegel termed this the “situational specificity of tolerance.” Environmental variables ranging from the room where a drug is administered to flavor cues can influence an individual’s drug-related tolerance. What this comes down to is classical Pavlovian conditioning. The body of a social drinker learns to prepare for the alcohol in response to the environment, before the alcohol is even ingested. Siegel’s argument is that people became especially drunk after drinking Four Loko because of the unexpected way in which it was presented: it doesn’t actually taste like alcohol.