Does Tylenol Reduce Empathy As Well As Pain?


It’s well known that prescription painkillers can cause a feeling of emotional distance, to the point where Pink Floyd had a hit song about it. But does that extend to milder, over-the-counter analgesics? Ohio State University researchers believe so.

In an update to an earlier study, researchers recruited a group of college students and split them into a control and an acetaminophen group. The latter took 1,000 mg of the drug, and then participated in one of three experiments. In the first, they read short stories where people were in different types of pain and ranked how much pain that person had experienced. In the second, they were subjected to painful blasts of white noise and asked to rank how painful they found it and how painful others would think the blasts were. A third experiment asked them to rank the pain of somebody cut out of a social interaction. In all cases, the people on painkillers felt less pain, and thus less sympathy.

Before you swear off Tylenol in the name of love and understanding, there are a whole bunch of caveats that need to be applied here: First off, the study used small samples of college students, not exactly the most diverse population. Secondly, it dealt with pain as an abstract and a low-stakes situation — being left out of a social interaction isn’t as painful as, say, a car wreck.

Most importantly, though, it’s still not clear what the mechanism for this emotional deadening might be. Do the participants simply view pain through the lens of what they themselves experience? Is there a neurological component we’re unaware of? Is it a consistent issue or does it only happen to some people?

That said, it’s still intriguing and potentially troubling, especially now that the team has replicated their results. That largely rules out the idea that this could be a weird data blip or an error in study design. Acetaminophen is one of the most common analgesic painkillers on the market. If this study continues to hold true, we might be messing with our state of mind without even realizing it.

(Via Ohio State)