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How Alcohol Affects Our Ability to Read Emotions

Both impairing and enhancing social cues.

Key points

  • After consuming alcohol, some emotions are perceived differently.
  • Recognizing facial expressions is an important way to perceive individual emotional state.
  • Alcohol consumption impacts the ability to recognize certain emotions better than others.
Bridgesward on Pixabay
Source: Bridgesward on Pixabay

For many people, happy hour is a time for cocktails and conversation, usually in that order. But alcohol consumption may impact appropriate social behavior by altering the power of perception. Researchers have examined how alcohol affects the ability not only to get happy during happy hour but to perceive positive or negative emotions from others.

Microbreweries and Microexpressions

At the local pub or cocktail lounge, one might not expect social drinkers to be particularly perceptive people-readers; especially as the evening wears on. Researchers who have studied this phenomenon admit that apparently, after consuming alcohol, emotions are perceived differently.

Fatima Felisberti and Philip Terry (2015) studied alcohol’s impact on the ability to recognize facial expressions and microexpressions.[i] They begin by recognizing facial expressions as important indicators of individual emotional state, and the ability to accurately recognize them as critical to successful navigation of one’s social environment. They list the six facial expressions of emotion generally accepted as being universally recognized as: “happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust.” They note that some researchers include contempt as one of the core expressions.

They compared the effect of alcohol on the ability to recognize microexpressions, defined as “briefly displayed facial expressions of emotion,” with expressions displayed for longer time periods. Of all of the emotions, they found that consuming alcohol can increase sensitivity to expressions of disgust and contempt.

Reading Emotion After Indulging

Felisberti and Terry didn’t have their study participants didn’t drink beer; they consumed Waitrose vodka (37 percent alcohol by volume) with diet Schweppes Indian tonic water and Angostura Bitters. After consuming either a higher dose of alcohol, a lower dose, or a placebo drink, participants viewed the facial expressions of 12 male actors expressing anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, and sadness, in addition to neutral faces.

Felisberti and Terry found the presentation of microexpressions resulted in a significant interaction between the emotion depicted by the actor and the amount of alcohol consumed by the viewer. They note that recognizing disgust was low when compared with recognizing other emotions, but after a high dose of alcohol (0.6 or 0.57 g/kg for men and women, respectively) participants were better able to recognize both disgust and contempt as compared to the other two conditions. Felisberti and Terry found that being able to recognize microexpressions of anger was reduced after both doses of alcohol relative to having consumed a placebo drink, but not significantly. Unlike some previous studies, they did not detect any impairment in recognizing sadness.

Social Drinking and Discernment

Felisberti and Terry describe alcohol’s ability to improve recognition accuracy for disgust and contempt as surprising and note that it may have implications for social behavior. For example, they note that heightened sensitivity to expressions of contempt after consuming alcohol in a social setting may have detrimental consequences because it could increase the risk of alcohol-related aggression. They note their research results are consistent with others that have voiced concerns about alcohol’s impact on the processing of facial expressions, and how it might be linked with its effects on violence and aggression.

The bottom line is that alcohol apparently both impairs and enhances social cues. People who meet up with friends and coworkers at happy hour, in addition to the usual cautions about drinking and driving, are well-advised to drink responsibly to react appropriately. Sober judgment is always the best practice.

Facebook image: nkotlyar/Shutterstock


[i] Felisberti, Fatima, and Philip Terry. 2015. “The Effects of Alcohol on the Recognition of Facial Expressions and Microexpressions of Emotion: Enhanced Recognition of Disgust and Contempt.” Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental 30 (5): 384–92. doi:10.1002/hup.2488.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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