Alcohol Can Distort Men’s Feelings of Empathy and Understanding of Irony

A new study suggests drinking too much alcohol can interfere with men’s feelings of empathy and understanding of irony. Chronic heavy drinking may damage parts of the brain involved in deciphering emotions and processing humor, the researchers say.

The study included 22 men in their third week of an alcohol treatment program, and 22 men who were not alcoholics. The men were asked to read a series of stories that ended with a straightforward sentence or an ironic one. They were then asked to complete a questionnaire aimed at determining the characters’ emotional state and whether they were speaking ironically, the researchers report in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Men in the alcohol treatment program identified ironic sentences correctly 63 percent of the time, compared with 90 percent for men without a drinking problem. The results suggest that people with drinking problems can misinterpret what they see and hear, NBC News reports.

“This result confirms that alcoholic subjects tend to underestimate negative emotions; it also suggests that the same situation might be read in a totally different way by an alcoholic individual and another person,” lead researcher Simona Amenta said in a news release.

She added, “While a lot has been said on emotion recognition in faces, body postures and gestures, only a few studies have explored the recognition of emotion in verbal language. We believe this topic should be investigated more, especially since problems in social interaction are considered a relevant outcome, but also one possible cause, of alcohol dependence.”

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