Alcoholism can have disastrous results in blunting human emotion and expression. Whereas some view alcohol as the gateway to losing social inhibitions, there is also a strong case to be made that alcohol can also dampen our ability to comprehend true emotion and the expressions of those people with whom we interact. A new study was conducted testing alcoholics’ ability to express empathy and understand the concept of irony; two abilities usually greatly hindered by excessive drinking. Empathy, the ability to show emotion and/or concern for others, is a key element lacking in many drinkers. Alcoholics often blunt their ability to empathize with others as an escape from the task of having truthful and honest communication with another human being. Whether someone is hiding from dealing with life’s problems or drinking to escape responsibilities and duties, alcoholics often ruin their relationships by drowning their sorrows with the bottle.
The study included 22 male alcoholics and a “control” group of 22 men who weren’t alcoholics. The men read stories with either an ironic or non-ironic ending and then completed a questionnaire about the story characters’ emotional states and what they intended to communicate. In addition, the participants’ ability to understand the ironic meaning of the story was also assessed and compared to their capacity for empathy. The alcoholics showed a lack of empathy and misunderstood that the irony in the story was meant to criticize. (USnews.com) According to research author Simona Amenta, “the findings seem to indicate that alcoholics might show a general impairment in understanding complex forms of communication.” (USnews.com)
Alcoholics rarely recognize emotion in verbal language as they are often too drunk to understand or give credence to the actual meaning of an honest conversation. Alcoholics have the tendency to hear what they want, when they want. They are not just the “funny” boisterous man or woman often depicted as the life of the party. They often internalize their own thoughts and selectively hear only parts of conversations while failing to understand the emotion or meaning in the listener’s voice. Amenta writes, “While a lot has been said on emotions recognition in faces, body postures and gestures, only a few studies have explored the recognition of emotion in verbal language. We believe this topic should be investigated more, especially since problems in social interaction are considered a relevant outcome, but also one possible cause, of alcohol dependence.” (USnews.com)
As the child of an alcoholic, I know firsthand how the lack of empathy from a parent can greatly strain a relationship. Whenever I’ve tried to have any conversation of meaning with my father, his drunken stupor has prevented him from truly hearing what I am trying to say to him. His lack of empathy, brought on by alcohol, has caused me great pain in trying to relate to him and in trying to get him to understand my own, personal battles with mental illness and addiction. Having someone that really listens to you and attempts to try to understand your struggle with life is of great servitude to one’s battle with mental illness and drug addiction. I suggest you don’t try to have an alcoholic try to understand your problems as they will very likely fail to listen to you and truthfully process what you have entrusted in them through conversation.
USnews.com. Alcoholism linked to poor sense of empathy, irony in men. n.d. <http://health.usnews.com/health-news/news/articles/2012/11/08/alcoholism-linked-to-poor-sense-of-empathy-irony-in-men>.