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Alcohol makes smiles more ‘contagious’

Men are more likely to “catch” a smile from people in their social group after drinking alcohol, according to a new study.

Men are more likely to “catch” a smile from people in their social group after having a drink

The findings published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Assocition for Psychological Science, showed that, for men, alcohol increases sensitivity to “rewarding” social behaviours such as smiling.

“This experimental alcohol study, which included a social context, finds the clearest evidence yet of greater alcohol reinforcement for men than women,” said Catharine Fairbairn, psychological scientist and lead researcher of the University of Pittsburgh.

“Many men report that the majority of their social support and social bonding time occurs within the context of alcohol consumption.

“We wanted to explore the possibility that social alcohol consumption was more rewarding to men than to women – the idea that alcohol might actually ‘lubricate’ social interaction to a greater extent among men.”

Previous research has revealed men are approximately 50% more inclined to drink excessively than women and a lot of “problem drinking” among men happens within social settings.

The researchers randomly separated 720 healthy social drinkers aged between 21 and 28 to groups of three.

Each group was then randomly assigned a particular drink: an alcoholic beverage (vodka cranberry), a non-alcoholic beverage, or a non-alcoholic “placebo” beverage in a glass smeared with vodka to give a more believable pretence of an alcoholic drink.

Fairbairn and the other researchers used sophisticated analyses to model smiling behaviour in the groups, following the spread of smiles from one group to the next.

They found that alcohol significantly increased the contagiousness of smiles for all-male groups, but that there was no significant effect on emotional septicity on groups containing any women.

A smile was more likely to be “caught” if those receiving the smile were heavier drinkers, regardless if they were male or female.

The findings are significant, said Fairbairn, because they highlight the importance of social context in understanding drinking behaviour.

“The need to ‘belong’ and create social bonds with others is a fundamental human motive,” added Fairbairn. “Therefore, social motives may be highly relevant to the understanding of how alcohol problems develop.”

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