Alcohol and Emotional Contagion: An Examination of the Spreading of Smiles in Male and Female Drinking Groups

Catharine E. Fairbairn, Michael A. Sayette, Odd O. Aalen, Arnoldo Frigessi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Researchers have hypothesized that men gain greater reward from alcohol than do women. However, alcohol-administration studies in which participants were tested when they were drinking alone have offered weak support for this hypothesis. Research has suggested that social processes may be implicated in gender differences in drinking patterns. We examined the impact of gender and alcohol on “emotional contagion”—a social mechanism central to bonding and cohesion. Social drinkers (360 male, 360 female) consumed alcohol, placebo, or control beverages in groups of three. Social interactions were videotaped, and both Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiling were continuously coded using the Facial Action Coding System. Results revealed that Duchenne smiling (but not non-Duchenne smiling) contagion correlated with self-reported reward and typical drinking patterns. Importantly, Duchenne smiles were significantly less “infectious” among sober male groups versus female groups, and alcohol eliminated these gender differences in smiling contagion. Findings identify new directions for research that explores social-reward processes in the etiology of alcohol problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)686-701
Number of pages16
JournalClinical Psychological Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • alcohol
  • emotional contagion
  • facial mimicry
  • gender
  • social context

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology


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