Acetaminophen Makes You Less Capable of Empathy

A new study found that people who are taking acetaminophen are less able to experience empathy.

There’s a theory about empathy called the Simulation Theory. The Simulation Theory of Empathy suggests that we experience empathy by thinking about how a situation would make us feel, then projecting that feeling onto the other person. A 2004 study even showed that the part of our brain that experiences pain also plays an important role in empathy.

This is the theory that led researchers at Ohio State University to look at how over-the-counter pain medication can impact our ability to empathize with other people. Their thinking is that when we are under the influence of painkillers, we are less able to experience pain ourselves, which makes us less able to understand others’ pain.

The Acetaminophen Empathy Study

The researchers conducted two experiments to see how acetaminophen changed participants’ reactions to social and physical pain in others. They found that acetaminophen reduces empathy to both types of pain.

Experiment #1

In the first experiment, they studied two groups of 40 people each. One group took 1000mg of acetaminophen—the equivalent of two Extra-Strength Tylenol—and the other took a placebo.

An hour later, they rated eight scenarios and told researchers, on a scale of one to five, how much pain the person in the scenario felt and how “hurt” that person felt. Half of the scenarios described physical pain, and the other half described emotional pain. They were things like slamming fingers in a door, stepping on a thumbtack, a father passing away or overhearing someone talking behind their back.

The students in the acetaminophen group rated these experiences as less physically and emotionally painful than the placebo group.

Experiment #2

This experiment started the same way: take the drug (or placebo), wait an hour. In this experiment, though, they broke the participants up into groups of four to eight people and encouraged them to get to know each other. They then read and rated the same eight scenarios as the first group.

The second experiment had two additional parts. They experienced loud blasts of white noise and watched a game where one player was ostracized. The researchers studied their empathic reactions to each of those experiences.

Participants in the second experiment also exhibited less empathy overall when they were under the influence of acetaminophen than when they had taken a placebo.

Conclusions

Study co-author Baldwin Way told CNN, “If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.”

Way also said that “We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning.”

Acetaminophen—the active ingredient in Tylenol and many other over-the-counter and prescription medications—is only the first painkiller they tested. According to CNN, they are going to look at ibuprofen’s impact on empathy next.

Related at Care2

A new study found that people who are taking acetaminophen are less able to experience empathy.

Images via Thinkstock.

47 comments

Camilla V
Camilla Vaga4 days ago

noted

SEND
Ruth S
Ruth S8 days ago

Thanks.

SEND
Elaine W
Elaine W8 days ago

I am less patient when I am in pain, but this is interesting.

SEND
Nena C
Nena C9 days ago

btw this is ASPIRIN!! plain and simple gees

SEND
Nena C
Nena C9 days ago

totally believe this seen it in others for sure, whinners and criers and complainers on and on instead of figuring out why when its so simple to understand

SEND
Margie F
Margie FOURIE11 days ago

Thank you

SEND
Julie W
Julie W12 days ago

Clare O: "Does the same apply to taking an aspirin or paracetamol?" Clare, acetaminophen IS paracetamol.

SEND
Mona M
Mona M13 days ago

I first had to research on Google what was acetaminophen!

SEND
Ruth R
Ruth Rakotomanga13 days ago

Interesting, but if you don't take that pill, your toothache is not going to make you feel empathy for anyone else's suffering anyway.....

SEND
Kay B
Kay B13 days ago

I've never heard this before but I don't think it changes the way I empathize with the animals at the shelter. I feel their pain and distress way more than is good for me.

SEND