The results of a new study indicate that alcoholics may be less able than non-alcoholics to interpret other people’s emotional states. The study appears in the March issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Impaired ability to read facial expressions can lead to poor interpersonal functioning. Facial expressions “are key factors of communication since they convey most information on emotional expression and regulation as well as on social motives,” said study author Marie-Line Foisy, a researcher at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
The study’s subject pool consisted of 49 alcoholics who were spending their third or fourth week of detoxification in a post-detox treatment facility. 22 of the 49 subjects were still alcohol-free 2 months after the study; 27 had quit the treatment program by that time. The control group consisted of 22 non-alcoholics who were matched with members of the alcoholic group with regard to age, gender, and educational level.
Subjects were tested on their ability to identify “universal” facial expressions such as happiness, anger, disgust, and sadness in 16 photographs. They were tested twice, once at the beginning of the study and once 2 months later. Alcoholics who had abstained from drinking for 3 months had significant difficulty identifying emotional facial expressions. Alcoholics who had dropped out of the treatment program had even more difficulty with the test.
“Our results corroborate and expand upon previous findings of more errors in accurate labeling, and overestimation of the intensity level of the emotion displayed, among alcoholic participants when compared to control participants,” said Foisy. She also stated that alcoholics who appear to have the most difficulty identifying others’ emotions may struggle more with recovery.
Because alcoholism is a widespread, highly visible public health issue, researchers are trying to zero in on the particulars of alcoholic functioning and behavior. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), about 17.6 million adults in the United States abuse alcohol or are alcoholic. 53 percent of adults in this country say that one or more of their close relatives have some kind of drinking problem.
The NIAAA defines alcoholism, or “alcohol dependence,” as a disease with four primary symptoms: craving, or a compulsion to consume alcohol; loss of control over one’s ability to drink in moderation; physical dependence, which causes symptoms of withdrawal when the alcoholic stops drinking; and tolerance, or the need to increase alcohol consumption in order to achieve a “high.”
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Publication, “Alcoholism: Getting the Facts”
Download PDF at: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/GettheFacts_HTML/Facts.pdf