Summary: A recent study reports a surprising correlation between daily affective empathy and alcohol consumption.
The study found that on days when people experienced higher levels of affective empathy (empathy based on shared emotional experiences) than usual, they tended to consume more alcohol. This connection remained even after adjusting for daily changes in positive and negative emotions.
The study emphasizes the need to understand day-to-day variations in affective empathy to comprehend alcohol usage patterns.
- People tend to consume more alcohol on days when they experience higher than usual levels of affective empathy.
- The connection between affective empathy and alcohol use was not explained by daily changes in emotional states.
- Cognitive empathy (understanding another’s perspective) was not significantly linked to alcohol use, suggesting that affective empathy might play a more crucial role in alcohol consumption.
Source: Research Society on Alcoholism
People who reported feeling more affective empathy on a given day than was typical for them were likely to drink more than usual, according to a study published in Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Notably, these daily shifts in affective empathy levels were associated with the number of drinks consumed even after controlling for daily shifts in positive and negative emotions.
This means that the association between affective empathy and alcohol use was not explained by shifts in emotional states.
Overall, the findings indicate that changes in an individual’s affective empathy on a day-to-day basis may be important to understand alcohol use.
Researchers sought to explore how two facets of empathy may motivate an individual’s drinking. Specifically, researchers examined affective empathy, referring to the ability to share another person’s emotional state, and cognitive empathy, referring to the ability to understand another person’s perspective or emotional state.
In contrast to past research, which has almost exclusively focused on trait empathy (a person’s general tendency to show empathy across situations), this study focused on state empathy, the variability in an individual’s empathy in response to their interpersonal interactions on a daily basis.
For the study, researchers asked just under five hundred adult alcohol drinkers to respond to questions on their smartphones at different times throughout the day to measure their affective and cognitive empathy in response to specific social interactions and how much positive (e.g., relaxed, happy) and negative (e.g., nervous, sad) emotions they were experiencing. Participants were also asked about the amount of alcohol they consumed that day.
The study found that individuals consumed more drinks on days when they reported greater than average state affective empathy levels. Additionally, participants with higher trait positive affect were less likely to drink alcohol on a given day.
However, as day-level state positive affect increased, individuals were more likely to drink alcohol and drink more, whereas negative affect did not influence alcohol use.
Notably, no significant associations were evident between day-level state cognitive empathy and alcohol use, suggesting that affective empathy may be more important in explaining alcohol use.
These findings on state affective empathy contrast with previous studies, which have found that lower trait empathy is associated with greater alcohol use and problems. The researchers speculated that the discrepant findings might be due to differences in how empathy was assessed.
Specifically, participants in this study reported on their empathy levels in real-time and about specific social interactions rather than filling out questionnaires about their typical (that is, trait) empathy, as done in prior studies. The researchers suggested that future research is needed to confirm this, though.
The study authors also noted the racially homogenous sample group and a brief protocol duration as limitations of the study, and they recommended that further research explores mechanisms and individual difference factors that may influence the link between higher state affective empathy and increased alcohol use.
About this empathy research news
Original Research: Open access.
“Associations of state and trait empathy with daily alcohol use” by Lakshmi Kumar et al. Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research
Associations of state and trait empathy with daily alcohol use
A growing literature documents associations between lower trait empathy and heavier alcohol use and more alcohol problems in adolescent and young adult samples. Prior work linking empathy and alcohol use/problems in these populations has thus far focused on trait rather than state empathy, and researchers often do not differentiate between cognitive and affective empathy. Further, no prior studies have examined associations between daily fluctuations in state empathy and alcohol use. The goal of the current study is to advance knowledge about the associations between state (vs. trait) and cognitive (vs. affective) empathy and alcohol use.
Adult alcohol drinkers (n = 492; Mage = 22.89, SD = 5.53; 53.70% female) participated in ecological momentary assessment studies for 7 to 10 days (day n = 4683). Multilevel hurdle models were used to investigate associations between day-level state empathy and daily alcohol use at the within-person level, and associations between individual differences in trait empathy and alcohol use across days at the between-person level.
Higher day-level state affective empathy was not associated with the likelihood of drinking on a particular day, but it was significantly associated with a greater number of drinks consumed on alcohol-consuming days, with the latter associations remaining after controlling for day-level positive affect (PA) and negative affect (NA). No associations were found for day-level state cognitive empathy, or trait affective or cognitive empathy.
On drinking days, when individuals reported more affective empathy than is typical for them, they were more likely to consume a greater number of alcoholic drinks, results that remained when controlling for levels of PA and NA. Daily shifts in affective empathy may be important to consider in efforts to understand alcohol use.