Maybe They Just “Don’t Get It!” Study Suggests Alcohohlic Men Struggle Processing Humor, Irony and Empathy

If we think back to our childhood we might remember watching a television show with our family and noticed that our parents would laugh or maybe even tear-up at a particular scene. At the time we might have sensed they understood something we just “didn’t get.” We didn’t get the humor or the irony of the script. Occasionally, years later we find ourselves viewing a rerun of one of these shows and because we are older and more experienced we understand now why are parents laughed or cried so many years ago. The same could be true when we pick up a novel that we read as a young teenager and then choose to reread the novel as a mature adult, nuances and irony become apparent. This is one little glorious part of maturing, yes, we grow up.

Researchers study the ability of alcoholic men to appreciate irony and feel empathy

On November 8, 2012, the results of a new study were released online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.   The study Decoding of Emotional Components in Complex Communicative Situations (Irony) and Its Relation to Empathic Abilities in Male Chronic Alcoholics: An Issue for Treatment was authored by Simona Amenta, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Milano-Bicocca and a lecturer at the Catholic University of Milan. NBC News quotes Dr. Armenta speaking of how chronic alcohol use affects men:

“Chronic alcohol abuse seems to have effects on the perception and
decoding of emotional expressions. It has been associated with … deficits
in emotion recognition and verbalization, leading to difficulties in
distinguishing and comprehending people’s emotional states.”

The study’s methods

The researchers were specifically looking to study recognition of emotion in verbal language.

  • 44 male subjects participated in the study
  • 22 of the participants were alcoholics, who were sober for at least three weeks
  • 22 of the participants (control group) were not alcoholics
  • The men were given stories to read
  • Some stories had ironic endings and some had non-ironic endings
  • The men were then given questionnaires to complete which were intended to determine if they understood emotional states of the characters in each story and also detect when characters were speaking ironically.

The study’s results

HealthDay News sums up the study’s results:

  • The alcoholics showed a lack of empathy and misunderstood that the irony in the story was meant to criticize.
  • The men in the control group found that the irony in the story expressed
    negative attitudes and emotions, the alcoholics said the irony
    expressed amusement and generally positive emotions

And NBC News adds:

  • Alcoholics identified ironic sentences correctly only 63 percent of the time,
    as compared to 90 percent of the non-alcoholic volunteers.

Observing the study’s results

NBC News interviewed Lara Ray, an assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles and “she isn’t surprised to see differences in how alcoholic and non-alcoholic brains work. Chronic alcohol abuse changes the brain.” Everyday Health quotes Dr. Armenta: “While alcoholic subjects seem to be able to correctly recognize
emotions like joy and disgust. They show a tendency to
overestimate anger and other negative emotions like fear and sadness.” HealthDay states it is important to understand: “While the study found an association between alcoholism and a decreased
sense of empathy and irony, it did not prove a cause-and-effect

We invite you to read all the related articles and the study’s abstract link provided above. As always, research studies allow us to learn and ask more relevant questions. Studies also invite us to be observant of human behavior, particularly that displayed by an alcoholic.

As always, we invite your comments.

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