December 9, 2022

Does a common painkiller reduce empathy?

After a series of similar studies, researchers are again studying whether acetaminophen can influence our psychology. This time, the focus is on positive empathy.

Acetaminophen is one of the most commonly used drugs in the world.

It provides quick relief from mild pain and is readily available over the counter.

Although the medical community considers acetaminophen a relatively safe and useful drug, a recent study questions whether it might have an unexpected effect on the general population.

Researchers at Ohio University in Athens are examining its effect on our ability to empathize with others.

Lead author Dominik Mischkowski has been interested in this unusual topic for some time.

Although the idea that a popular painkiller could have a psychological effect seems surprising, Mischkowski is not the only one to have studied it.

For example, a paper 2010 concluded that acetaminophen “reduced neural responses to social rejection”. In other words, it seemed to reduce psychological pain.

A to study from 2015 concluded that acetaminophen blunted “evaluative and emotional processing”, while a more recent study to study involving people with borderline personality disorder found that acetaminophen increased their level of confidence.

Mischkowski published the results of a study in 2016, and Medical News Today covered it at the time. In the article, the researchers explained how acetaminophen appeared to reduce participants’ ability to empathize with those experiencing physical and emotional pain.

According to Mischkowski, this common pain reliever blunts responsiveness to one’s own pain and also to the pain of others.

I am always surprised at the startling psychological effects of such a common painkiller.

Main author Dominik Mischkowski

In his latest study, Mischkowski wanted to expand on his earlier work. Specifically, he and his colleagues sought to determine whether acetaminophen could also reduce a person’s ability to experience positive empathy.

To investigate, the researchers recruited 114 participants. They gave half the group 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen, while the other half received an inert placebo. The study was double-blind, which means that neither the researchers nor the participants knew whether they were receiving the active drug or the placebo.

An hour later, the team asked participants to read short passages about people who had had positive and uplifting experiences. The researchers measured how positive the participants perceived the events and how positive they thought they were for the individuals in the story.

Once the scientists completed their analysis, the results confirmed their expectations:

“[A]ketaminophen reduces positive empathy. When reading scenarios about various protagonists having pleasurable experiences, participants under the influence of acetaminophen felt less empathic affect than participants who had consumed a psychologically inert placebo.

Importantly, the researchers also found that acetaminophen didn’t dull participants’ ability to understand that the situations they were reading about were positive – they realized the emotional impact, but they didn’t feel much of it. empathy for the individuals in the stories.

While these findings contribute to a growing body of similar research, most studies are small and typically involve fewer than 100 participants. Thus, although interest is growing, it is not yet possible to assess the magnitude of the effect of acetaminophen on empathy, if any.

This effect may be small or the drug may only affect some people, but due to the widespread use of this pain reliever, even a small effect could be significant.

Considering that about a quarter of all US adults take a medication containing acetaminophen every week, this research is really important.

Dominik Mischkowski

As the authors explain, there is a need for further studies to replicate and build on these findings. The researchers could strengthen the study in several ways. For example, inducing empathy in real situations would be better than just reading emotional texts.

It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to quantify empathy or any other human emotion for that matter. In this particular study, the team asked participants to rate how much they felt, for example, pleasure, uplift, or pleasure, using a five-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “extremely”.

The use of an individual’s self-assessment is problematic for many reasons. For example, the participant might not experience a decrease in empathy but simply a reduced desire to share their feelings.

That said, even though paracetamol does not impair empathy, it does appear to cause a measurable change in how participants respond to a questionnaire, which is still interesting.

The idea that such a common drug could have a psychological effect, even if subtle, is intriguing. However, few studies have addressed these questions, and scientists will need to do much more detailed work before they can conclude that acetaminophen significantly reduces empathy.