Alcohol makes men smile

Alcohol makes men smile

Wednesday, 1 July, 2015

“Smokers Wanted.”  That’s the statement I read in the Pitt News, the daily student newspaper of the University of Pittsburgh.

U Pitt’s Alcohol and Smoking Research Lab was looking for study participants, and at this specific laboratory, “Smokers Wanted” is not an unusual request. Some time ago the lab recruited around 700 (!) participants for a drinking behavior study.

Observe drinking behavior

Researcher Catherine Fairbairn and colleagues observed drinking behavior in a social context. They set out to investigate the relationship between drinking an alcoholic beverage in a group and the level of emotional contagion (spreading of smiles).

Drinking behavior and social reward are under investigation to better understanding processes related to alcohol addiction and abuse.

Catch a smile

The researchers focused on simultaneous smiles or mutual smiles as a form of social coordination that carries important implications for social reward.

Catching a smile is part of a social bonding process.

Based on previous research, Fairbairn and colleagues predicted that alcohol would increase the contagiousness of smiles to a greater extent among men than among women in a social-drinking setting.

The test

A total of 720 “Drinkers Wanted” participants, 50% female and 50% male, visited the laboratory and were randomly assigned to groups of three (male-male-male, female-female-female, male-male-female, female-female-male). The group members were casually introduced to see if they had previously met. This shouldn’t be the case because acquaintances might have a previous drinking history.

The participants were seated at a round table, and cameras were positioned in all four corners of the room. A microphone recorded the conversation.

Drinks were mixed in front of all study groups, which included both alcohol and placebo conditions, and the participants were asked to drink their beverages in three equal intervals at 0 min, 12 min, and 24 min. The participants were asked not to discuss how intoxicated they felt, but were otherwise not given any specific instructions related to social interaction.

Prior to the start of the experiment, the participants were only told that the purpose of the study was to measure alcohol’s impact on cognitive performance. Only later were they informed that the cameras were recording their facial expressions.

Action Unit analysis

To analyze the smiles, the researchers coded the activity of muscles in the face, using The Observer XT software.

The Observer XT

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Duchenne smiles – genuine smiles of enjoyment – include combined movement of AU 12, a raising of the corners of the mouth, and AU 6, a raising of the cheeks and formation of crow's feet around the eyes. Non-Duchenne smiles were indexed with the movement of AU 12 alone.

The influence of alcohol and other people

In each test group, the researchers tested the probability of a single smile developing into a mutual smile, or simultaneous smile from the group. They found that irrespective of beverage condition, smiles initiated in all-male groups were less likely to develop into mutual smiles than were smiles initiated in all-female groups. Overall, smiles initiated in groups consuming alcohol were more likely to lead to mutual smiles than in placebo or control groups. Contrary to the all-woman groups, all-male groups showed an increased instance of mutual smiling when alcohol was present:

Alcohol made men smile.

Duchenne smiles were less ‘infectious’ among sober all-male groups versus groups that contained one or more females.

In conclusion, social context appears to be of great importance to alcohol-related reinforcement, so the researchers suggest further examination of social bonding in male groups. Social motives may be highly relevant to the understanding of how alcohol problems develop.


  • Fairbairn, C.E.; Sayette, M.A.; Aalen, O.O.; Frigessi, A. (2014). Alcohol and emotional contagion: an examination of the spreading of smiles in male and female drinking groups. Clinical Psychological Science, 1-16.