Research reveals communication problems continue even when alcoholics stop drinking

  • Date

    Wed 11 Jul 18

Professor Silke Paulmann and student

Former alcoholics continue to have communication problems, and in particular difficulty detecting emotion in someone’s voice, long after they have stopped drinking a new study has revealed.

Previous research has shown heavy drinkers struggle to interpret non-verbal communication, including tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. This can lead to misunderstandings and problems with relationships.

Now in the first study to assess the long-term effects and potential social ramifications for abstained alcoholics, researchers have discovered the difficulties continue even when they have stopped drinking.

Professor Silke Paulmann, from our Department of Psychology, conducted the study with her MSc student Chelsea Harmsworth. She explained: “The ability to communicate emotions through voice is an important and necessary aspect of social interaction. Failure to detect and failure to express emotions can have severe impacts on relationships.

“Understanding the problems former alcoholics have with this could lead to strategies being developed which would help them with communication. For example, it may be necessary to create social skills training programs that help mitigate conflicts between different parties, before they blow out of proportion.”

The study, which has been published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, involved a group of former drinkers, who had abstained from alcohol for at least a year, and a control group. They were tested in two ways – their ability to express emotion through their voice was explored as well as how well listeners could recognise the intended emotion. Distinct differences were found between the two groups.

The former alcoholics found it difficult to express emotions, including anger, disgust, fear and happiness, with listeners reporting their voices sounded inexpressive, or flat. Similarly, they were much less likely to detect emotion in the voices of others.

It is not yet clear whether the difficulties faced by alcoholics are down to damage to their vocal chords or damage to a part of the brain. Further work is needed to fully unravel the underlying causes.