Social drinking and contagious emotions: Can alcohol make you catch a smile?

A new study published in Clinical Psychological Science examined the impact of alcohol and gender on “emotional contagion,” or the likelihood of mimicking emotions in social situations.

Previous research has (unreliably) suggested that men get more pleasure from alcohol than women. However, according to Catharine Fairbairn and Michael Sayette—corresponding authors from the University of Pittsburgh—most of this research was conducted on participants who were drinking alone.

“One explanation for inconsistent effects of gender in the alcohol-administration literature is a failure to incorporate social context into experimental paradigms,” the authors wrote. “The overwhelming majority of drinking outside the laboratory occurs within the context of social interaction.”

The Study

The study examined 720 participants (360 male and 360 female) between the ages of 21 and 28.  Participants were placed in groups with two strangers and were either given an alcoholic drink, a placebo (or fake alcoholic drink), or given nothing.  They were then instructed to carry on normal conversation.

The scientists used Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to examine emotional contagion—more specifically, the extent to which participants would “catch” the smile of another person in the group. For the study, only Duchenne, or genuine, smiles were reported.

The Findings

The study revealed two important findings. First, men may get more pleasure from drinking in social situations than women.

“Alcohol selectively enhanced the probability that a man will catch a smile in a social-drinking context,” wrote the authors. “Men derive more reward from alcohol than do women and…this reward manifest[s] as a specifically social, catching process.”

The second implication is more general: the more a person “catches” positive emotions while drinking socially, the more that person tends to drink.

“Individuals who were more likely to be infected by a smile were more likely to report being heavier drinkers outside the laboratory,” said the authors.

While these findings are groundbreaking, there is still much work to be done regarding emotion, gender and alcohol, according to the research team.

“Further research might explore alcohol’s impact on the contagion of negative emotion during threatening or stressful social interaction.