Alcohol Use Disorder Displays Trait-Related Reductions in Prosocial Decision Making

Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2022 Sep;7(9):925-934. doi: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2022.05.002. Epub 2022 May 18.


Background: Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is associated with deficits in social cognition, but the relationship between harmful alcohol use and the processes underlying interactive social behavior is still unknown. We hypothesized that prosocial decision making is reduced in AUD and that individual differences in the underlying processes are key to better understanding these reductions.

Methods: In one laboratory study (Swedish participants, n = 240) and one confirmatory online study (American participants, n = 260), we compared young adults with AUD with age-, gender-, and education-matched healthy control subjects on 6 facets of prosocial decision making. We used standardized behavioral economic tasks, namely the dictator game, ultimatum game, trust game, and third-party game. To better understand the expected differences in prosociality, we evaluated attention by tracking eye gaze, decision response time, clinical symptoms, and social cognition.

Results: Altruism (lab study: p = .007; online study: p < .001), fairness (lab study: p = .003; online study: p = .007), and reciprocal trust (lab study: p = .007; online study: p = .039) were reduced in individuals with AUD compared with healthy control subjects, whereas trust and third-party punishment and compensation were comparable in both studies. Reduced prosociality was associated with attending to the selfish response option, faster response time, and moral attitudes, while being dissociated from both psychiatric symptoms and drinking history in AUD.

Conclusions: Individuals with AUD have trait-related reductions in prosocial decision making that do not vary with drinking history or psychiatric symptom load. These reductions were confined to one-to-one interactions accompanied by differences in attention, decision time, and moral attitudes.

Keywords: Alcohol use disorder; Behavioral economics; Prosocial behavior; Social cognition; Social decision making.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism*
  • Altruism
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Humans
  • Reaction Time
  • Social Behavior
  • Young Adult