Alcoholism Linked to Poor Sense of Empathy, Irony in Men

Study suggests difficulty with complex forms of verbal communication may be tied to alcohol abuse

THURSDAY, Nov. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Alcoholic men tend to lack empathy and have a distorted view of irony, which suggests that they may have difficulty understanding complex forms of communication, according to a small new study.

Empathy is the ability to understand another person's feelings, and irony is a communication technique that uses words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of the literal meaning, for example, saying "What a beautiful view" when looking out the window at a brick wall.

The study included 22 male alcoholics and a "control" group of 22 men who weren't alcoholics. The men read stories with either an ironic or non-ironic ending and then completed a questionnaire about the story characters' emotional states and what they intended to communicate.

In addition, the participants' ability to understand the ironic meaning of the story was also assessed and compared to their capacity for empathy. The alcoholics showed a lack of empathy and misunderstood that the irony in the story was meant to criticize.

While the men in the control group found that the irony in the story expressed negative attitudes and emotions, the alcoholics said the irony expressed amusement and generally positive emotions, the Italian researchers said.

The study was released online Nov. 8 in advance of publication in the February print issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The findings "seem to indicate that alcoholics might show a general impairment in understanding complex forms of communication," study corresponding author Simona Amenta, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Milano-Bicocca and a lecturer at the Catholic University of Milan, said in a journal news release.

She noted that studies on alcoholism have not closely examined emotions and language.

"While a lot has been said on emotions 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," Amenta said.

While the study found an association between alcoholism and a decreased sense of empathy and irony, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more about alcohol use disorders.

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