, Volume 234, Issue 1, pp 41–51 | Cite as

Alcohol acutely enhances decoding of positive emotions and emotional concern for positive stimuli and facilitates the viewing of sexual images

  • Patrick C. Dolder
  • Friederike Holze
  • Evangelia Liakoni
  • Samuel Harder
  • Yasmin Schmid
  • Matthias E. Liechti
Original Investigation



Social cognition influences social interactions. Alcohol reportedly facilitates social interactions. However, the acute effects of alcohol on social cognition are relatively poorly studied.


We investigated the effects of alcoholic or non-alcoholic beer on emotion recognition, empathy, and sexual arousal using the dynamic face emotion recognition task (FERT), Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET), and Sexual Arousal Task (SAT) in a double-blind, random-order, cross-over study in 60 healthy social drinkers. We also assessed subjective effects using visual analog scales (VASs), blood alcohol concentrations, and plasma oxytocin levels.


Alcohol increased VAS ratings of stimulated, happy, talkative, open, and want to be with others. The subjective effects of alcohol were greater in participants with higher trait inhibitedness. Alcohol facilitated the recognition of happy faces on the FERT and enhanced emotional empathy for positive stimuli on the MET, particularly in participants with low trait empathy. Pictures of explicit sexual content were rated as less pleasant than neutral pictures after non-alcoholic beer but not after alcoholic beer. Explicit sexual pictures were rated as more pleasant after alcoholic beer compared with non-alcoholic beer, particularly in women. Alcohol did not alter the levels of circulating oxytocin.


Alcohol biased emotion recognition toward better decoding of positive emotions and increased emotional concern for positive stimuli. No support was found for a modulatory role of oxytocin. Alcohol also facilitated the viewing of sexual images, consistent with disinhibition, but it did not actually enhance sexual arousal. These effects of alcohol on social cognition likely enhance sociability.


Alcohol Emotion recognition Empathy Oxytocin Sexual arousal 



The authors acknowledge Michael Arends for editing the manuscript. No financial support was declared.

Compliance with ethical standards

The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki and approved by the local Ethics Committee.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Attwood AS, Munafo MR (2014) Effects of acute alcohol consumption and processing of emotion in faces: implications for understanding alcohol-related aggression. J Psychopharmacol 28:719–732CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  2. Attwood AS, Ataya AF, Benton CP, Penton-Voak IS, Munafo MR (2009a) Effects of alcohol consumption and alcohol expectancy on the categorisation of perceptual cues of emotional expression. Psychopharmacology 204:327–334CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Attwood AS, Ohlson C, Benton CP, Penton-Voak IS, Munafo MR (2009b) Effects of acute alcohol consumption on processing of perceptual cues of emotional expression. J Psychopharmacol 23:23–30CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Bershad AK, Kirkpatrick MG, Seiden JA, de Wit H (2015) Effects of acute doses of prosocial drugs methamphetamine and alcohol on plasma oxytocin levels. J Clin Psychopharmacol 35:308–312CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  5. Blair RJ (2005) Responding to the emotions of others: dissociating forms of empathy through the study of typical and psychiatric populations. Conscious Cogn 14:698–718CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Borrill JA, Rosen BK, Summerfield AB (1987) The influence of alcohol on judgement of facial expression of emotion. Br J Med Psychol 60:71–77PubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Bradley MM, Lang PJ (1994) Measuring emotion: the self-assessment manikin and the semantic differential. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry 25:49–59CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Castellano F, Bartoli F, Crocamo C, Gamba G, Tremolada M, Santambrogio J, Clerici M, Carra G (2015) Facial emotion recognition in alcohol and substance use disorders: a meta-analysis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 59:147–154CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Craig LC, Attwood AS, Benton CP, Penton-Voak IS, Munafo MR (2009) Effects of acute alcohol consumption and alcohol expectancy on processing of perceptual cues of emotional expression. J Psychopharmacol 23:258–265CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Davis MH (1983) Measuring individual differences in empathy: evidence for a multidimensional approach. J Pers Soc Psychol 44:113–126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Di Simplicio M, Massey-Chase R, Cowen PJ, Harmer CJ (2009) Oxytocin enhances processing of positive versus negative emotional information in healthy male volunteers. J Psychopharmacol 23:241–248CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Dolder PC, Schmid Y, Mueller F, Borgwardt S, Liechti ME (2016) LSD acutely impairs fear recognition and enhances emotional empathy and sociality. Neuropsychopharmacology. doi: 10.1038/npp.2016.82 PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  13. Domes G, Czieschnek D, Weidler F, Berger C, Fast K, Herpertz SC (2008) Recognition of facial affect in borderline personality disorder. J Personal Disord 22:135–147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dziobek I, Rogers K, Fleck S, Bahnemann M, Heekeren HR, Wolf OT, Convit A (2008) Dissociation of cognitive and emotional empathy in adults with Asperger syndrome using the multifaceted empathy test (MET). J Autism Dev Disord 38:464–473CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Fahrenberg J, Hampel R, Selg H (1984) Das Freiburger Persönlichkeitsinventar (FPI). Hogrefe, GöttingenGoogle Scholar
  16. Felisberti F, Terry P (2015) The effects of alcohol on the recognition of facial expressions and microexpressions of emotion: enhanced recognition of disgust and contempt. Hum Psychopharmacol 30:384–392CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Fisher HR, Simpson RI, Kapur BM (1987) Calculation of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) by sex, weight, number of drinks and time. Can J Public Health 78:300–304PubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. George WH, Stoner SA (2000) Understanding acute alcohol effects on sexual behavior. Annu Rev Sex Res 11:92–124PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Heinrichs M, von Dawans B, Domes G (2009) Oxytocin, vasopressin, and human social behavior. Front Neuroendocrinol 30:548–557CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Hesse M, Tutenges S (2008) Gender differences in self-reported drinking-induced disinhibition of sexual behaviors. Am J Addict 17:293–297CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Hurlemann R, Patin A, Onur OA, Cohen MX, Baumgartner T, Metzler S, Dziobek I, Gallinat J, Wagner M, Maier W, Kendrick KM (2010) Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans. J Neurosci 30:4999–5007CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Hysek CM, Schmid Y, Simmler LD, Domes G, Heinrichs M, Eisenegger C, Preller KH, Quednow BB, Liechti ME (2014) MDMA enhances emotional empathy and prosocial behavior. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 9:1645–1652CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Hysek CM, Simmler LD, Nicola V, Vischer N, Donzelli M, Krähenbühl S, Grouzmann E, Hoener MC, Liechti ME (2012) Duloxetine inhibits effects of MDMA ("ecstasy") in vitro and in humans in a randomized placebo-controlled laboratory study. PLoS One 7:e36476CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  24. Kamboj SK, Joye A, Bisby JA, Das RK, Platt B, Curran HV (2013) Processing of facial affect in social drinkers: a dose-response study of alcohol using dynamic emotion expressions. Psychopharmacology 227:31–39CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Kano M, Gyoba J, Kamachi M, Mochizuki H, Hongo M, Yanai K (2003) Low doses of alcohol have a selective effect on the recognition of happy facial expressions. Hum Psychopharmacol 18:131–139CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Lang AR (1985) The social psychology of drinking and human sexuality. J Drug Issues 15:273–289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lang PJ, Bradley MM, Cuthbert BN (2008) International affective picture system (IAPS): affective ratings of pictures and instruction manual. University of Florida, Gainesville, FLGoogle Scholar
  28. Lawrence EJ, Shaw P, Baker D, Baron-Cohen S, David AS (2004) Measuring empathy: reliability and validity of the empathy quotient. Psychol Med 34:911–919CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Marsh AA, Yu HH, Pine DS, Blair RJ (2010) Oxytocin improves specific recognition of positive facial expressions. Psychopharmacology 209:225–232CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Martinotti G, Di Nicola M, Tedeschi D, Cundari S, Janiri L (2009) Empathy ability is impaired in alcohol-dependent patients. Am J Addict 18:157–161CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Meade Eggleston A, Woolaway-Bickel K, Schmidt NB (2004) Social anxiety and alcohol use: evaluation of the moderating and mediating effects of alcohol expectancies. J Anxiety Disord 18:33–49CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Mennella JA, Pepino MY (2006) Short-term effects of alcohol consumption on the hormonal milieu and mood states in nulliparous women. Alcohol 38:29–36CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  33. Mills KC, Bisgrove EZ (1983) Body sway and divided attention performance under the influence of alcohol: dose-response differences between males and females. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 7:393–397CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Mitchell IJ, Gillespie SM, Abu-Akel A (2015) Similar effects of intranasal oxytocin administration and acute alcohol consumption on socio-cognitions, emotions and behaviour: implications for the mechanisms of action. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 55:98–106CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Mumenthaler MS, Taylor JL, O'Hara R, Yesavage JA (1999) Gender differences in moderate drinking effects. Alcohol Res Health 23:55–64PubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Neumann ID, Maloumby R, Beiderbeck DI, Lukas M, Landgraf R (2013) Increased brain and plasma oxytocin after nasal and peripheral administration in rats and mice. Psychoneuroendocrinology 38:1985–1993CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Prause N, Staley C, Finn P (2011) The effects of acute ethanol consumption on sexual response and sexual risk-taking intent. Arch Sex Behav 40:373–384CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Ramos L, Hicks C, Kevin R, Caminer A, Narlawar R, Kassiou M, McGregor IS (2013) Acute prosocial effects of oxytocin and vasopressin when given alone or in combination with 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine in rats: involvement of the V1A receptor. Neuropsychopharmacology 38:2249–2259CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  39. Rawson RA, Washton A, Domier CP, Reiber C (2002) Drugs and sexual effects: role of drug type and gender. J Subst Abus Treat 22:103–108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Rickli A, Moning OD, Hoener MC, Liechti ME (2016) Receptor interaction profiles of novel psychoactive tryptamines compared with classic hallucinogens. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol 26:1327–1337Google Scholar
  41. Rumpf HJ, Hapke U, Meyer C, John U (2002) Screening for alcohol use disorders and at-risk drinking in the general population: psychometric performance of three questionnaires. Alc Alcoholism 37:261–268CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Schmid Y, Enzler F, Gasser P, Grouzmann E, Preller KH, Vollenweider FX, Brenneisen R, Muller F, Borgwardt S, Liechti ME (2015a) Acute effects of lysergic acid diethylamide in healthy subjects. Biol Psychiatry 78:544–553CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Schmid Y, Hysek CM, Preller KH, Bosch OG, Bilderbeck AC, Rogers RD, Quednow BB, Liechti ME (2015b) Effects of methylphenidate and MDMA on appraisal of erotic stimuli and intimate relationships. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol 25:17–25CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Schmid Y, Hysek CM, Simmler LD, Crockett MJ, Quednow BB, Liechti ME (2014) Differential effects of MDMA and methylphenidate on social cognition. J Psychopharmacol 28:847–856CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Silva SM, Madeira MD, Ruela C, Paula-Barbosa MM (2002) Prolonged alcohol intake leads to irreversible loss of vasopressin and oxytocin neurons in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus. Brain Res 925:76–88CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Simons JS, Maisto SA, Wray TB, Emery NN (2015) Acute effects of intoxication and arousal on approach/avoidance biases toward sexual risk stimuli in heterosexual men. Arch Sex Behav 45:43–51CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Steele CM, Josephs RA (1990) Alcohol myopia. Its prized and dangerous effects. Am Psychol 45:921–933CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Stevens S, Gerlach AL, Rist F (2008) Effects of alcohol on ratings of emotional facial expressions in social phobics. J Anxiety Disord 22:940–948CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Sumnall HR, Beynon CM, Conchie SM, Riley SC, Cole JC (2007) An investigation of the subjective experiences of sex after alcohol or drug intoxication. J Psychopharmacol 21:525–537CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Taylor J, Fulop N, Green J (1999) Drink, illicit drugs and unsafe sex in women. Addiction 94:1209–1218CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Tottenham N, Tanaka JW, Leon AC, McCarry T, Nurse M, Hare TA, Marcus DJ, Westerlund A, Casey BJ, Nelson C (2009) The NimStim set of facial expressions: judgments from untrained research participants. Psychiat Res 168:242–249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Unkelbach C, Guastella AJ, Forgas JP (2008) Oxytocin selectively facilitates recognition of positive sex and relationship words. Psychol Sci 19:1092–1094CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, Telang F, Jayne M, Wong C (2007) Stimulant-induced enhanced sexual desire as a potential contributing factor in HIV transmission. Am J Psychiatry 164:157–160CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Wilson GT, Niaura R (1984) Alcohol and the disinhibition of sexual responsiveness. J Stud Alcohol 45:219–224CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Wilson GT, Niaura RS, Adler JL (1985) Alcohol, selective attention and sexual arousal in men. J Stud Alcohol 46:107–115CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  56. Young CM, DiBello AM, Traylor ZK, Zvolensky MJ, Neighbors C (2015) A longitudinal examination of the associations between shyness, drinking motives, alcohol use, and alcohol-related problems. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 39:1749–1755CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Patrick C. Dolder
    • 1
  • Friederike Holze
    • 1
  • Evangelia Liakoni
    • 1
  • Samuel Harder
    • 1
  • Yasmin Schmid
    • 1
  • Matthias E. Liechti
    • 2
  1. 1.Division of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology, Department of Biomedicine and Department of Clinical ResearchUniversity Hospital Basel and University of BaselBaselSwitzerland
  2. 2.Division of Clinical Pharmacology and ToxicologyUniversity Hospital BaselBaselSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations