Study finds binge drinkers may struggle to feel empathy

By | September 15, 2020

Binge drinkers may not feel empathy for people in pain as easily as non-binge drinkers, according to a study from the University of Sussex.

The report showed the brains of binge drinkers require more effort to feel empathy for other people experiencing pain, according to the study published in Neuroimage: Clinical journal in October.

“Our data show that binge-drinkers need to work harder to feel empathy for other people in pain. They need to use more resources in terms of higher brain activity than non-binge drinkers,” Dr. Charlotte Rae from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex said in a news release about the study.

The researchers studied 71 participants from the UK and France who took part in a pain perception task while their brain activity was observed with MRI scanners. Half of the participants were classified as non-binge drinkers and the other half were considered binge drinkers, which was defined as drinking more than 60g of pure alcohol (which the study authors said is equivalent to about three-quarters of a bottle of wine or two and a half pints of lager) on at least one occasion in the past 30 days. The binge-drinkers were sober during the study, according to the news release.

An image of a body part being injured was shown to the participants who were then asked to imagine that the limb was theirs or another person’s limb. They had to then report how much pain was associated with the image. The binge-drinking group struggled more than the non-binge-drinking participants when asked to take on the perspective of another person experiencing the pain, according to the release.

The study found the binge-drinking group not only took longer to respond, but the MRI scans found their brains required more work to use more neural resources to understand how intensely another person would feel pain.

“They need to use more resources in terms of higher brain activity than non-binge drinkers,” Rae said in the news release.

When the participants were asked to envision the injured limb as their own, the binge drinkers estimated pain level was the same as the non-binge-drinking counterparts, according to the study.

“What this means in everyday life is that people who binge drink might struggle to perceive the pain of others as easily as non-binge drinkers do. It’s not that binge drinkers feel less empathy — it’s just that they have to put more brain resources into being able to do so. However, under certain circumstances when resources become limited, binge drinkers may struggle to engage in an empathic response to others,” Rae concluded.

This reduced empathy correlated with binge drinking, the study authors said in the release, could trigger more drinking.

“Reduced empathy in binge drinkers may facilitate drinking as it can blunt the perception of [the] suffering of self or others during a drinking session,” Professor Theodora Duka from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex said in the news release.

Approximately 30% of individuals over 15 years old who drink alcohol in France and the UK meet the study’s criterion for binge drinking. If you or someone you know may have a problem with alcohol, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7 information and treatment service available for help. The number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or the link for further information is here.

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