People taking acetaminophen—the painkiller ingredient in popular brands such as Tylenol—may be less empathetic to others’ pain, according to a study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Researchers also found acetaminophen reduced the degree to which study participants were bothered by a loud blast of white noise. The study only looked at short-term effects of acetaminophen use, not long-term consequences.
According to the study, 23% of Americans take a drug containing acetaminophen each week.
What Is Acetaminophen’s Effect on Empathy?
The study involved two separate experiments. In the first, 40 college students drank 1,000 mg of acetaminophen—the equivalent of a dose of Tylenol Extra Strength. Another 40 students drank a placebo drink. None of the students knew which group they were in.
Researchers waited an hour for the medicine to take effect, then asked the students to review eight scenarios involving a person in physical or emotional pain. Participants then rated the intensity of the pain associated with each scenario on a scale of 1-5. Students who took acetaminophen rated the scenarios as less painful than students who did not take the drug.
Researchers asked each student to estimate the unpleasantness of the noise blasts and to guess how unpleasant an anonymous second participant might find the sounds. Students who took acetaminophen found the noise blasts less unpleasant, and assumed others would find them less unpleasant as well.
Researchers also had the students socialize with one another, then asked them to watch a simulated game. During the game, two participants the students had previously met excluded a third. Students who took acetaminophen thought the excluded student would have less severe hurt feelings.
Do All Painkillers Decrease Empathy?
The study did not directly test how acetaminophen might reduce empathy. It is also unclear whether the results are limited to acetaminophen, or if other painkillers also reduce empathy.
A 2004 brain scan study found the same areas of the brain were involved both in experiencing pain and watching another person experiencing pain. This suggests a drug that reduces pain sensitivity could also reduce empathy, regardless of the specific ingredients it contains. The researchers plan to study ibuprofen—another popular painkiller—to see if it has the same effects on empathy.
- Mischkowski, D., Crocker, J., & Way, B. M. (2016). From painkiller to empathy killer: Acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. doi:10.1093/scan/nsw057
- Noise level chart: DB levels of common sounds. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.noisehelp.com/noise-level-chart.html
- When you take acetaminophen, you don’t feel others’ pain as much. (2016, May 10). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160510084257.htm
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