Male alcoholics appear to have a great deal of difficulty recognizing emotions in verbal language, a small European study suggests. The researchers also found that the men have a weakened ability to show empathy.
Because empathy plays a key role in interpersonal relationships, an empathy deficit might explain part of the wider relationship problems commonly seen in alcoholics, said study author Simona Amenta, a psychology researcher at the University of Milano-Bicocca.
Previous research has suggested that alcoholics tend to misinterpret emotions and have a hard time distinguishing other people's feelings from their voices or by looking at their facial expressions or body postures. The new study examined whether male alcoholics also would have a hard time perceiving emotions in verbal messages.
The researchers looked at 44 men — half were healthy males, and the other 22 were recovering alcoholics who had been sober for at least two weeks, and were enrolled in a detoxification program in Belgium. Researchers asked the men to read stories that had either an ironic or non-ironic ending, and to answer questions about the characters' emotional states and communication intentions.
An empathy deficit
The scientists decided to use irony because understanding its meaning in written language is a complex form of communication that involves reasoning skills along with the ability to pick up on subtle emotional cues. These thinking skills may be weakened or damaged in people who have chronically abused alcohol.
When they were reading ironic stories, the healthy male participants perceived them as displaying negative emotions and attitudes. But male alcoholics were less likely to recognize irony, and they judged ironic or sarcastic comments as expressing positive emotions.
Researchers also found that alcoholics misinterpreted negative emotions as expressing criticism, and positive emotions as expressing amusement. The findings were published online today (Nov. 8) in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
"This result is very interesting, since it confirms that alcoholic subjects tend to underestimate negative emotions and overestimate positive ones," Amenta said. This tendency might result in an underestimation of the possible negative consequences of risky situations or problematic interpersonal relationships.
"Our study indicates that the impairments observed in alcoholics' social interactions might be affected by their difficulties in correctly recognizing emotions displayed in verbal communications," Amenta said.
A new research emphasis
"This study adds to a growing body of literature that shows there are abnormalitiesin different aspects of emotional perception and expression in alcoholic individuals," said Marlene Oscar-Berman, a neuroscientist at the Boston University School of Medicine who has researched the effects of alcohol on the brain and behavior.
Studying the emotional manifestations of alcohol is a relatively new area of emphasis, Oscar-Berman said. But it points to the social problems created when alcohol destroys aspects of a person's life.
For example, when an alcoholic has difficulties perceiving the subtle nuances in emotional communication, he or she tends not to receive positive reinforcement from other people. This might create a vicious cycle: A lack of positive social interaction may make alcoholics feel awkward, and so they drink more, which puts off others around them.
Oscar-Berman noted the study did not include women, so its findings may not apply to female alcoholics. Her own research has found big differences between men and women alcoholics in areas of the brain that control emotional function.
She says another major limitation is that it tested men who had been sober for only two weeks. "There is quite a bit a research suggesting that alcohol doesn't leave the body for a minimum of three weeks after a person quits drinking, so you may have to wait until alcohol is out of the system," Oscar-Berman said. People who have been sober for six months may not have these emotional deficits, she said.
Pass it on: Men who are alcoholics may have problems perceiving the emotions in written language.
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