Alcohol makes smiles “catching”

Alcohol, in moderation has lots of interesting effects on people. It can, for instance, transform an otherwise modest person of adequate self-regard into someone who believes they are one of the funniest human beings ever to tread the planet. In the hands of a glass of cabernet too, a usually retiring soul can become someone who feels they should exhibit their dancing skills to all and sundry. Now a new study shows that alcohol can also make you smile a lot…if you are a man.

For the study researchers randomly assigned more than 700 healthy, moderate drinkers aged between 21 and 28 to one of three groups. Each group was then randomly assigned to one of these drinks; either an alcoholic drink (vodka cranberry), a non-alcoholic drink, or a placebo non-alcoholic drink that they were told was alcoholic (this last group to control for people who expected to become intoxicated). To make it realistic the researchers smeared the glass of the placebo drink with vodka and put a few drops of vodka on the surface.

The subjects in each group were casually introduced and given seats around a table. The drinks were apportioned at an even rate over time and the subjects were told to drink them at an even rate. Apart from this the people were allowed to relate freely to each other.

Analysis of video recordings of the groups interacting was used to examine the spread of smiles within groups. It was found that alcohol significantly increased the amount of contagious smiles but only in all male groups. If any women were present in a group alcohol had no effect on emotional contagion within the group as measured by smiles.

The only exception to this was that a smile was more likely to be contagious if a person was drinking heavily, regardless of gender.

The researchers think this suggests that for men alcohol increases sensitivity to socially rewarding behaviours such as smiling. In effect the alcohol is inducing in men what the researchers call “social bravery”, by changing processes that would normally prevent them from responding to the smile of another.

Small wonder we think of moderate alcohol as a social lubricant.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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