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Alcohol can make Smiles Contagious for Men

Update Date: Sep 30, 2014 12:00 PM EDT

Social drinkers know that a few glasses of wine or beer can lighten the mood. In a new study, researchers examined how drinking affects people within a group. They found that for men in particular, alcohol consumption was tied to an increase in smiling.

"This experimental alcohol study, which included a social context, finds the clearest evidence yet of greater alcohol reinforcement for men than women," stated psychological scientist and lead researcher Catharine Fairbairn of the University of Pittsburgh according to the press release. "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."

For this study, the researchers set out to examine non-verbal signs of social bonding that occur in drinking groups. The team focused on Duchenne smiles, which have been linked to real emotions that are genuine. They recruited 720 healthy social drinkers between the ages of 21 and 28. The participants were randomly divided into groups of three. Each group had a different beverage: an alcoholic one (vodka cranberry), a non-alcoholic one and a non-alcoholic one that was described as alcoholic.

The people within each group sat at a table and were instructed to interact with each other freely. All of the drinks in each group were given out in equal parts over time and the participants were told to consume them at an even rate. After examining the different smiles using analyses, the researchers concluded that smiles became contagious for men who were in an all male alcohol group. In mixed groups, alcohol did not have the same effect.

The team also found that in all of the alcoholic groups, heavier drinkers were more like to "catch" a smile regardless of gender. Catching a smile was linked to increased positive mood, decreased negative mood and social bonding.

"According to popular opinion, a 'social drinker' is necessarily a non-problem drinker, despite the fact that the majority of alcohol consumption for both light drinkers and problem drinkers occurs in a social context," Fairbairn explained. "Not only that, the need to 'belong' and create social bonds with others is a fundamental human motive. Therefore, social motives may be highly relevant to the understanding of how alcohol problems develop."

The study, "Alcohol and Emotional Contagion. An Examination of the Spreading of Smiles in Male and Female Drinking Groups," was published in the Association for Psychological Science's journal, Clinical Psychological Science.

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