Study measures changes in psychosocial attitudes after beer drinking

Media Release: European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP)
“For the science and treatment of disorders of the brain”

Study measures changes in psychosocial attitudes after beer drinking
Embargo until: Monday, 19 September 2016, 00.01 CET (Vienna)

What does drinking beer really do? A new study has shown that drinking beer affects the way we see specific emotions and allows us to see happy faces faster. It also has surprising effects on sexual perception. These results* are presented at the ECNP Conference in Vienna, with simultaneous publication in the peer-reviewed journal Psychopharmacology.
Although the vast majority of adults have direct experience of drinking alcohol, there is surprisingly little scientific data on the effects of alcohol on the processing of emotional social information or on sexual arousal, and no data on the effects of alcohol on empathy. Now researchers from the University Hospital in Basel, Switzerland, have attempted to answer some of the questions around the way alcohol alters the way we relate to others, and how alcohol affects sexual arousal.

In a double-blind, random-order, cross-over study, researchers enlisted 60 healthy participants (30 men, 30 women) aged between 18 and 50.They then gave 30 of them a glass of alcoholic beer (0.5L depending on body weight and sex). This raised their blood alcohol content to around 0.4 g/L Thirty control subjects were given non-alcoholic beer.

The subjects then underwent a range of tasks, including a face recognition test, empathy test, and sexual arousal test. At the end of the tests, the subjects and controls were switched and the process repeated. The main results they found were:

• Drinking beer helps people see happy faces faster.

• It also increased the tendency to want to be with others in a happy social situation

• These effects were greater in women than in men, but were also greater in those who had previously shown some social inhibition

• It made it easier for people (especially women) to view explicit sexual images, but it didn’t seem to lead to greater sexual arousal

The researchers also found that ‘before and after’ levels of the hormone oxytocin did not change. (oxytocin is thought to mediate aspects of social cognition and is involved in bonding).

Lead researcher, Professor Matthias Liechti (University Hospital, Basel) said:

“The effect of many medications and substances of abuse have been tested on various tests of emotion processing and social cognition. However, although, many people drink beer and know its effects through personal experience there is surprisingly little scientific data on its effects on the processing of emotional social information. We found that drinking a glass of beer helps people see happy faces faster, and enhances concern for positive emotional situations. Alcohol also facilitates the viewing of sexual images, consistent with disinhibition, but it does not actually enhance sexual arousal. These effects of alcohol on social cognition likely enhance sociability”.

Commenting, Professor Wim van den Brink (Amsterdam), past Chair of the ECNP Scientific Programme Committee, said:

“This is an interesting study confirming conventional wisdom that alcohol is a social lubricant and that moderate use of alcohol makes people happier, more social and less inhibited when it comes to sexual engagement. The sex differences in the findings can either be explained by differences in blood alcohol concentration between males and females with the same alcohol intake, differences in tolerance due to differences in previous levels of alcohol consumption or by socio-cultural factors. It should also be recognized that different effects of alcohol can be seen according to whether your blood alcohol is increasing or decreasing, and of course how much alcohol you have taken. Finally, as Shakespeare noted**, alcohol-related emotions and cognitions as studied are not always consistent with actual behaviors”.

* See notes for editors for full conference abstract and publication information
** “It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” (Macbeth Act 2. Scene 3) [4].

Research funded By the University Hospital Basel.


Notes for editors
Please mention the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in any stories which result from this press release.

Professor Matthias Liechti [email protected]
Professor W. van den Brink [email protected]
ECNP Press Officer, Tom Parkhill [email protected] tel +39 349 238 8191 (Italy)
The European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP)
The ECNP is an independent scientific association dedicated to the science and treatment of disorders of the brain. It is the largest non-institutional supporter of applied and translational neuroscience research and education in Europe. Website:
The annual ECNP Congress takes place from 17th to 20th September in Vienna. It is Europe’s premier scientific meeting for disease-oriented brain research, annually attracting between 4,000 and 6,000 neuroscientists, psychiatrists, neurologists and psychologists from around the world. Congress website:

Congress abstract: Acute emotional and social cognitive effects of beer. Presented Monday 19th Sept, 12.15-13.45
P. Dolder, F. Holze, S. Harder, M.E. Liechti, University Hospital Basel, Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, Basel, Switzerland
Background: Alcohol reportedly enhances social interaction. However, acute effects of alcohol on social cognition are not well studied. For example, alcohol-dependent patients show lower empathy compared with controls. However, no data are available on the acute effects of alcohol on empathy. Alcohol consumption has also been implicated in sexual disinhibition and sexual risk taking. However, unclear is whether alcohol actually enhances sexual arousal and desire or produces disinhibition, and we are unaware of studies that evaluated whether alcohol acutely enhances subjective sexual arousal by sexual/erotic visual stimuli.
Methods: We investigated the effects of a low-to-moderate dose of alcohol (target blood alcohol concentration [BAC], 0.4 g/L) using the dynamic face emotion recognition task (FERT), Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET), and Sexual Arousal Task (SAT) and alcoholic or non-alcoholic beer in a double-blind, random-order, cross-over study in 60 healthy social drinkers (all European/Caucasian, 30 men, 30 women; mean age: 25±4 years). All these tests have previously been used with other psychoactive substances [1–3]. We also assessed subjective effects using visual analog scales (VASs), BACs, and plasma oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is associated with prosocial behaviour and improved emotion recognition.
The inclusion criterion was age of 18–50 years. The exclusion criteria were pregnancy, chronic or acute medical condition, current or previous personal history of psychotic or major affective disorder, alcohol use disorder, alcohol intolerance/hypersensitivity, history of alcohol abuse in first-degree relatives, lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use of more than 15 times, the use of any illicit substances within the last week or during the study period, and the use of medications that might interfere with alcohol.
Results: In the present study we found that alcohol increased VAS ratings of any drug effect, liking, high, happy, talkative, open, and want to be with others. The subjective effects of alcohol were greater in women and in participants with higher trait inhibitedness. Greater liking was found in carriers of the G allele of the GABARA2 rs279858 single-nucleotide polymorphism confirming previous data. Alcohol facilitated the recognition of happy faces on the FERT and enhanced emotional empathy for positive stimuli on the MET, particularly in participants with low trait empathy. Pictures of explicit sexual content were rated as less pleasant than neutral pictures after non-alcoholic beer but not after alcoholic beer. Explicit sexual pictures were rated as more pleasant after alcoholic beer compared with non-alcoholic beer, particularly in women. Alcohol did not alter the levels of circulating oxytocin.
Conclusion: Altogether, alcohol biased emotion recognition toward better decoding of positive emotions and increased emotional concern for positive stimuli. Although these effects are similar to those of oxytocin, there is no support for a mediating role of oxytocin. Alcohol also facilitated the viewing of sexual images, consistent with disinhibition, but it did not actually enhance sexual arousal.

[1] Hysek, C.M., Schmid, Y., Simmler, L.D., Domes, G., Heinrichs, M., Eisenegger, C., Preller, K.H., Quednow, B.B., Liechti, M.E., 2014a. MDMA enhances emotional empathy and prosocial behavior. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 9, 1645–1652.
[2] Hysek, C.M., Simmler, L.D., Schillinger, N., Meyer, N., Schmid, Y., Donzelli, M., Grouzmann, E., Liechti, M.E., 2014b. Pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic effects of methylphenidate and MDMA administered alone and in combination. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol 17, 371–381.
[3] Schmid, Y., Hysek, C.M., Preller, K.H., Bosch, O.G., Bilderbeck, A.C., Rogers, R.D., Quednow, B.B., Liechti, M.E., 2015. Effects of methylphenidate and MDMA on appraisal of erotic stimuli and intimate relationships. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol 25, 17–25.
* This work is simultaneously published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychopharmacology (Springer). Citation details: Dolder, P. et al. (2016). Alcohol acutely enhances decoding of positive emotions and emotional concern for positive stimuli and facilitates the viewing of sexual images, Psychopharmacology. DOI 10.1007/s00213-016-4431-6. Journalists can obtain a copy of the paper from ECNP Press Officer Tom Parkhill ([email protected]). The ECNP thanks Springer for cooperation in this press release.