Summary: Men who are intoxicated with alcohol have impairments when it comes to correctly assessing emotional facial cues in others. Researchers speculate the findings may explain why alcohol use is often associated with harmful interpersonal and social interactions, such as aggression and domestic violence.
Source: Research Society on Alcoholism
Alcohol intoxication is linked to impairments in the ability to interpret other people’s facial expressions, especially in men, according to a new study.
The findings may help explain why alcohol use is often associated with harmful interpersonal and social consequences, such as physical aggression, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or being victimized.
Heavy drinking is known to have the potential to disrupt the recognition of facial expressions, leading to misinterpretation. This may in turn contribute to inappropriate behaviors.
Identifying the social processing mechanisms influenced by alcohol may inform interventions designed to reduce these negative outcomes.
Previous laboratory studies of alcohol use and emotion processing have had mixed findings, however, and the roles of gender and naturalistic settings have not been investigated.
For the study in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, investigators explored the influence of alcohol intoxication on recognizing facial emotions in a real-world setting, involving men and women across a wide range of intoxication levels.
Researchers worked with 114 adults (60% men, 82% White, median age 24) recruited near restaurants and bars in a mid-southern US town over three nights. Participants answered questions on their drinking habits (how often they used alcohol and how many drinks they consumed on a typical occasion).
They took an emotion recognition task on a tablet computer featuring 10 images, each portraying one of five facial emotions (anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, or neutrality). Breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) was measured using a breathalyzer.
The researchers used statistical analysis to look for associations between BrAC, emotion recognition scores, and demographic information including gender.
Participants who were more intoxicated were less accurate at identifying facial emotions. Increased intoxication was associated with lower accuracy among men; the decline in accuracy among women was insignificant.
The most accurately identified facial emotion was happiness; the least accurately identified emotion was sadness.
Overall, higher BrAC was linked to worse emotion recognition for the images showing sadness, disgust, and neutrality.
Among men, higher BrAC correlated with worse emotion recognition for sadness, anger, and neutrality.
The findings support alcohol myopia theory, which describes how intoxication affects the interpretation of social and environmental cues.
Alcohol-induced deficits in processing social information, especially for men, may contribute to aggression and violence. It is possible too that this effect could motivate drinking among people with social anxiety, who may use alcohol to alter perceptions they find threatening.
Women score higher at facial emotion recognition generally, potentially insulating them against this impairing effect of alcohol.
Gender moderates the association between acute alcohol intoxication and facial emotion recognition in a naturalistic field study setting
Alcohol intoxication is associated with significant negative social consequences. Social information processing theory provides a framework for understanding how the accurate decoding and interpretation of social cues are critical for effective social responding. Acute intoxication has the potential to disrupt facial emotion recognition. If alcohol impairs the processing and interpretation of emotional cues, then the resultant behavioral responses may be less effective. The current study tested the association between alcohol intoxication and facial emotion recognition in a naturalistic field study of intoxicated participants.
114 participants (59.4% men; Mage = 24.2 years) who had been consuming alcohol were recruited in the downtown area of a mid-size town surrounded by several drinking establishments in the mid-southern United States. Participants were shown images depicting 5 facial displays of emotions (happy, sad, anger, disgust, and no emotion) portrayed by 1 male and 1 female actor per emotion and breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) was measured by the field breathalyzer test (M = 0.078%, SD = 0.052).
BrAC was significantly negatively associated with emotion recognition accuracy when controlling for average alcohol use, B = −.35, t = −2.08, p < 0.05, F(3, 110) = 5.28, p < 0.01, R2 = 0.13. A significant BrAC × gender interaction was revealed, B = −0.39, t = −2.07, p = 0.04, ΔR2 = 0.033, p = 0.04, such that men (but not women) displayed a significant negative association between BrAC and emotion recognition accuracy.
Acute intoxication was associated with impaired facial emotion recognition, particularly for men, in a field study context. Findings support and extend some previous experimental laboratory-based research and suggest that intoxication can impair the decoding stage of social information processing.