Preserved Affective Sharing But Impaired Decoding of Contextual Complex Emotions in Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2017 Apr;41(4):779-785. doi: 10.1111/acer.13330. Epub 2017 Feb 3.


Background: Prior research has repeatedly shown that alcohol dependence is associated with a large range of impairments in psychological processes, which could lead to interpersonal deficits. Specifically, it has been suggested that these interpersonal difficulties are underpinned by reduced recognition and sharing of others' emotional states. However, this pattern of deficits remains to be clarified. This study thus aimed to investigate whether alcohol dependence is associated with impaired abilities in decoding contextual complex emotions and with altered sharing of others' emotions.

Methods: Forty-one alcohol-dependent individuals (ADI) and 37 matched healthy individuals completed the Multifaceted Empathy Test, in which they were instructed to identify complex emotional states expressed by individuals in contextual scenes and to state to what extent they shared them.

Results: Compared to healthy individuals, ADI were impaired in identifying negative (Cohen's d = 0.75) and positive (Cohen's d = 0.46) emotional states but, conversely, presented preserved abilities in sharing others' emotional states.

Conclusions: This study shows that alcohol dependence is characterized by an impaired ability to decode complex emotional states (both positive and negative), despite the presence of complementary contextual cues, but by preserved emotion-sharing. Therefore, these results extend earlier data describing an impaired ability to decode noncontextualized emotions toward contextualized and ecologically valid emotional states. They also indicate that some essential emotional competences such as emotion-sharing are preserved in alcohol dependence, thereby offering potential therapeutic levers.

Keywords: Affective Mental States; Affective Sharing; Alcohol Dependence; Context; Emotion; Empathy.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Aged
  • Alcohol Abstinence / psychology*
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis
  • Alcoholism / psychology*
  • Alcoholism / therapy
  • Cues*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Photic Stimulation / methods*