While it is usually taken for granted that people drink to reduce stress and enhance positive feelings, many studies have shown that alcohol consumption has an opposite effect.
But a new study finds that where you drink, and who you drink with, can greatly influence your emotional state.
University of Pittsburgh researchers used facial expression and speech behavior to find that moderate levels of social drinking can enhance positive emotions, improve social bonding and relieve negative emotions.
Psychologist Dr. Michael A. Sayette and colleagues found that moderate doses of alcohol have a powerful effect on both male and female social drinkers when they are in a group. The negative emotional association with alcohol involved social drinkers consuming alcohol in isolation rather than in groups.
“Those studies may have failed to create realistic conditions for studying this highly social drug,” Sayette said. “We felt that many of the most significant effects of alcohol would more likely be revealed in an experiment using a social setting.”
Sayette and co-authors assembled various small groups using 720 male and female participants, a larger sample than in previous alcohol studies. Researchers assessed individual and group interactions using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and the Grouptalk model for speech behavior.
Investigators concluded that alcohol stimulates social bonding, increases the amount of time people spend talking to one another, and reduces displays of negative emotions.
Sayette and eight colleagues randomly assigned each participant to a group of three unacquainted “strangers.” Each group was instructed to drink an alcoholic beverage, a placebo, or a nonalcoholic control beverage.
Twenty groups representing each gender composition (three males; one female and two males; two males and one female; and three females) were assigned to the three different beverage scenarios.
Group members sat around a circular table and consumed three drinks over a 36-minute time span.
Each session was video recorded, and the duration and sequence of the participants’ facial and speech behaviors were systematically coded frame by frame.
Results showed that alcohol not only increased the frequency of “true” smiles, but also enhanced the coordination of these smiles. Alcohol thus improved the likelihood of “golden moments,” with groups provided alcohol being more likely than those offered nonalcoholic beverages to have all three group members smile simultaneously.
Social bonding was also improved in the alcohol v. non-alcohol drinking group as groups in the alcohol group were more likely to have all three members stay involved in the discussion.
“By demonstrating the sensitivity of our group formation paradigm for studying the rewarding effects of alcohol,” said Sayette, “we can begin to ask questions of great interest to alcohol researchers: Why does alcohol make us feel better in group settings? Is there evidence to suggest a particular participant may be vulnerable to developing a problem with alcohol?”
Experts say the findings will be the foundation for new studies evaluating the socioemotional responses to alcohol and individual differences in personality, family history of alcoholism, and genetic vulnerability.
The paper will be published in the journal Psychological Science.