Tylenol May Reduce Empathy In Users

By McCarton Ackerman 05/13/16

A recent study found that users of acetaminophen, Tylenol's main ingredient, might feel less of a reaction to the pain of others.

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Tylenol May Reduce Empathy In Users

The main ingredient in common over-the-counter pain reliever drugs like Tylenol and Excedrin could reduce your empathy toward others, according to a new study. In two separate experiments, a research team at Ohio State University sought to determine how acetaminophen—which is found in more than 600 drugs on the market—affects the users' ability to empathize with those who are experiencing emotional or physical pain. They found that not only can these drugs numb pain, they can numb the user's ability to feel the pain of others, as well.

The findings were published Tuesday in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The first experiment involved 80 college students, who were given either acetaminophen or a placebo, and then asked to read different scenarios involving a person suffering either emotional or physical pain. They then rated the pain on a scale of one to five and, according to the results, the acetaminophen group rated the people's pain as less severe than did the group that took the placebo.

In the second experiment, 114 college students were exposed to two-second sound blasts, and were asked to rate the unpleasantness of the sound on a scale of one to 10, also describing how much pain they thought the noise would cause others. Their feedback determined that the acetaminophen group found the noise less unpleasant for both themselves and for others.

The same group of students then watched an online game that showed two fellow study participants excluding a third. When asked to rate the emotional pain of the excluded person, the acetaminophen group deemed it less severe than did the control group.

"These findings suggest other people's pain doesn't seem as big of a deal to you when you've taken acetaminophen," said study co-author Dominik Mischkowski, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health. 

Past research involving acetaminophen have reported similar findings of dulled emotions in users. A 2009 study published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that people who consumed acetaminophen displayed less brain activity in regions linked to social and physical pain, while they were experiencing social rejection. A follow-up study in 2013 also found that acetaminophen affected participants' sense of moral judgment.

"We think that Tylenol is blocking existential unease in the same way it prevents pain, because a similar neurological process is responsible for both types of distress," said the researchers.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.