Impaired emotional facial expression recognition in alcoholics: are these deficits specific to emotional cues?


Previous studies have repeatedly linked alcoholism is to impairment in emotional facial expression decoding. The present study aimed at extending previous findings while controlling for exposure times of stimuli. Further, a control task was added on the decoding of non-emotional facial features. Twenty-five alcoholic participants were compared to 26 control participants matched for age, sex and educational level. Participants performed two computer tasks consisting of presentation of photographs of faces for either 250 or 1000 ms. The first task required "yes" or "no" responses as rapidly as possible to questions regarding non-emotional features of the face (gender, age range and cultural identity). The second task involved a different set of photographs implicating emotional facial expression decoding, with the same exposure times. Again, rapid "yes" or "no" responses to trials combining 32 emotional facial expressions by eight emotional labels (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise, shame, and contempt) were required from participants. Reaction times were recorded for both tasks. Alcoholic and control participants showed similar results in both tasks in terms of response accuracy. Yet, in the emotional facial expression task, alcoholic participants' responses matched more negative emotional labels, especially sadness. Further, alcoholics were slower than control participants specifically to answer emotional questions on emotional facial expression. No differences appeared on reaction times in the control task. Contrary to expectations, no interaction of stimulus time exposure and group was observed. Overall, these findings replicate and extend previous results on emotional facial expression decoding ability: Alcoholics are specifically impaired on emotional non-verbal behavior information processing: They are slower to correctly identify an emotion.

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