Binge Drinkers May Lack Empathy

Man leaning on desk with alcohol and laptop
Man leaning on desk with alcohol and laptop
This study looked at a population of young adult social drinkers to compare individuals who show binge drinking behavior to those who do not on measures of empathic processing and associated neural responses.

Binge drinkers show signs of impaired empathy compared to non-binge drinkers according to a recent study in NeuroImage: Clinical.

Gauging empathy can help clinicians and researchers understand the mechanisms that underly “maladaptive drinking behavior” during a binge, the authors stated. Reduced sense of empathy can “blunt the perception of suffering of self or others during a drinking session and lead to repeated binges. That is how deficits in empathy may contribute to heavy alcohol drinking and eventually to Alcohol Use disorders.”

A total of 71 social alcohol drinkers, either binge drinkers or non-binge drinkers, between the ages of 18 and 26, from the United Kingdom and France, participated. Each participant participated in a single test.

Participants completed the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test and multiple behavioral tests. They later completed empathy tasks, including looking at pictures of injured and non-injured body parts, while undergoing an fMRI exam. Participants pressed a button to indicate whether the image portrayed a painful or nonpainful scene.

The researchers found that all participants gave a higher perceived-pain rating to pain than to no-pain images. Measuring perception of pain from the perspective of another person, “activations were higher in binge drinkers compared to non-binge drinkers within fusiform gyrus (notably in a specific sub-region, the Fusiform Body Area; FBA).

The cluster that showed a higher activation in binge drinkers spanned the fusiform and inferior temporal gyri. This “may represent a compensatory mechanism for impairments in the processing of emotional stimuli that have previously been described in alcohol use disorders and binge drinkers.”

The researchers also found binge took longer to respond to pictures that portrayed pain compared to non-binge drinkers, suggesting a difference in processing perceived pain.

A limitation of the current study is that subjective ratings of empathy were not taken to replicate the findings from the previous studies in which empathy characteristics in subjective ratings were compared between bingers and non-bingers.

“Our findings demonstrate, for the first time, differential brain responses to empathy for pain between these two groups of social drinkers,” the researchers concluded. “The current findings highlight the importance of empathic responses in the control of binge drinking. Importantly, these findings may inform prevention and treatment strategies for alcohol use disorder.”


Rae CL, Gierski F, Smith KW, et al. Differential brain responses for perception of pain during empathic response in binge drinkers compared to non-binge drinkers. Neuroimage Clin. 2020;27:102322. doi:10.1016/j.nicl.2020.102322