Coffee with Colleagues: Caffeine is a “Social” Enhancer

By Nadira Faber

The coffee you are having with your colleagues at a business meeting does more than keep you awake. Many of us know that caffeine can help with alertness and working memory – the first systematic study on caffeine and performance, sponsored by Coca-Cola, was published over 100 years ago. But did you know caffeine can also have “social” effects?

A recent study, published by Vasu Unnava and colleagues in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, looked at the effects of caffeine consumption in a group setting. In two experiments, student participants got together in small groups. Everyone was given an article about the pros and cons of the Occupy movement to read. Then, each group discussed the article for 15 minutes. In half of the groups, participants had coffee containing about 270mg of caffeine before they discussed. In the other half of the groups, participants consumed no caffeine.

Unnava and colleagues found that caffeine increased what we might call “social evaluations”: participants who have had caffeine (compared to the no-caffeine participants) rated not only their own performance in the discussion more positively, but also the performance of the whole group. Caffeine-participants also had a more positive attitude towards their fellow group members and were more willing to work in the same group again. In addition, there were effects beyond subjective performance: groups who had consumed caffeine raised more arguments that were relevant to the discussion than groups who hadn’t been given caffeine.

The authors argue that the positive evaluations of one’s own and the group’s performance are caused by caffeine enhancing alertness. They indeed find an increase in subjective alertness going along with the positive evaluations. Still, here I’m not so sure – another mechanism seems more plausible to me as the ultimate cause. We know from previous research that caffeine also improves mood, makes performance seem more effortless, and makes people more friendly and sociable. Individuals who have consumed caffeine might generally enjoy social interaction more (as my colleagues and I have previously argued), so my suspicion is that also here participants who drank caffeinated coffee just felt better about themselves and the whole group due to the mood- and sociability-enhancing effects caffeine has.

Whatever the deeper causes for the effects Unnava and colleagues found are, we can conclude from their study that caffeine improves people’s “social evaluations”. And how we see others in our group and also ourselves within that group has an impact, not only on our wellbeing but also on the performance of the group we work in.

From an ethical perspective, whenever we discuss enhancers – may it be the “new” ones like methylphenidate or modafinil or the “old” ones like caffeine – we should be aware that people who consume them operate in a social context. People interact with others, in a classroom on Ritalin or in the office with cups of coffee. So the “social” effects of these enhancers should be factored in any normative costs/benefits assessment.

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