Last year I made a rather esoteric joke about a supposed phenomena called the “Ballmer Peak” that was popularized by a web comic. The idea is that alcohol, at low doses, can actually increase the productivity of a computer programmer. The original claim was obviously in jest since, among other reasons, Randall Munroe (the web comic's author) claimed that this peak occurs at exactly 0.1337% blood alcohol content. This got me thinking: Could there be any truth to this claim? Read on to find out; the results may surprise you.
This article by Norlander specifically studies the relationship between moderate alcohol consumption (1.0ml/kg body weight) and creativity. It concludes
…modest alcohol consumption inhibits aspects of creativity based mainly on the secondary process (preparation, certain parts of illumination, and verification), and disinhibits those based mainly on the primary process (incubation, certain parts of illumination, and restitution).
In other words, moderate alcohol consumption does improve certain types of creative thinking, while inhibiting other types of creative thinking. Since the skills required for computer programming are solely cognitive in nature (discounting the motor skills required to type, of course), and given that creativity is a large part of computer programming, it is at least plausible that one might gain some amount of improvement from alcohol consumption.
There have also been studies on the relationship between alcohol consumption and creative output. That study examined 34 well known, heavy drinking, 20th century writers, artists, and composers/performers. It concludes:
Analysis of this information yielded a number of interesting findings. Alcohol use proved detrimental to productivity in over 75% of the sample, especially in the latter phases of their drinking careers. However, it appeared to provide direct benefit for about 9% of the sample, indirect benefit for 50% and no appreciable effect for 40% at different times in their lives. Creative activity, conversely, can also affect drinking behavior, leading, for instance, to increased alcohol consumption in over 30% of the sample. Because of the complexities of this relationship, no simplistic conclusions are possible.
So for a small portion of people there was a notable increase in creative output as a result of alcohol intake. It does appear that the study did not control for the quantity of alcohol intake, though, so this may not be directly applicable to the Ballmer Peak.
The best study I was able to find on the subject was by Lapp, Collins, and Izzo. They gave subjects vodka tonics of varying strengths (by varying the ratio of tonic to vodka), some of which did not even contain any alcohol. The subjects believed that they were drinking a standard-strength vodka tonic. The subjects then were asked to perform a number of cognitively and creatively challenging tasks. Here is what they conclude:
The present results support the idea that creative people probably gain inspiration from consuming alcohol …, but show that this effect may be due to the expected rather than the pharmacological effects of the drug. … A convergence of evidence supported the idea that creativity is enhanced (at least in some aspects) by the expected effects of alcohol.
In other words, alcohol can improve certain aspects of one's cognitive ability, but this effect is not likely due to any pharmacological process (i.e., it is often sufficient to merely believe that one is drinking alcohol in order to achieve the same benefit).
It looks like there may be some truth in the Ballmer Peak after all!