Painkiller Acetaminophen May Weaken Empathy

Sick man holding pills and waterPeople 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.

For the second trial, researchers divided 114 college students into two groups, with one group taking 1,000 mg of acetaminophen and the other receiving a placebo. After the drug took effect, researchers subjected each student to four 2-second blasts of white noise ranging from 75-105 decibels. At 75 decibels, noise is comparable to that of a vacuum cleaner, while a level of 105 decibels is significantly louder—akin to a table saw or sporting event.

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.

References:

  1. 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
  2. Noise level chart: DB levels of common sounds. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.noisehelp.com/noise-level-chart.html
  3. 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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  • harper

    harper

    May 13th, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    There are s many studies where things are said to cause this and cause that and yet there they are still on store shelves and readily available to us. If these things are causing so many problems then can anyone please explain to me why we can still buy them and use them? I know that they are probably safe in single doses but they are being abused and if people can’t handle taking them the way that they are intended then why don’t you have to have a prescription for them?

  • JOEL

    JOEL

    May 14th, 2016 at 10:11 AM

    use meds like they are intended to be used and it is likely that you will not experience this

  • Bellamy

    Bellamy

    May 16th, 2016 at 11:24 AM

    I just think that overall there is far too much of a dependence on any of the pain medications that are available to us. Whether you buy them In CVS or on a street corner, too much is always going to do something bad to the body. I don’t understand how all of the dependence and reliance of these came about and why this is where we automatically start to look for relief

  • jan

    jan

    May 17th, 2016 at 2:48 PM

    Any possibility that these were just people lacking in empathy in the first place?

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