Previous research has shown that the active ingredient in Tylenol, acetaminophen, can influence emotions and ease hurt feelings. But Baldwin Way, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University, and his colleagues have now shown that it may subtly encourage people to take risks.
It’s no surprise to scientists that acetaminophen may have effects beyond fever and pain reduction. “You take it for a headache, so it obviously affects the brain,” said Jean Golding, professor emeritus of pediatric and perinatal epidemiology at the University of Bristol, who has studied the cognitive effects of acetaminophen in patients. children after fetal exposure.
Scientists have conducted studies showing that acetaminophen can reduce emotional pain and ease both positive and negative emotions. Way’s team thought it could also lead to behavioral changes, such as risk-taking, in people taking the drug.
In a study published in the journal Social, cognitive and affective neurosciences, Way and his team have shown that taking acetaminophen affects perception of risk and makes people more likely to take risks in a balloon burst lab task.
During the experiment, 142 first-cycle participants were randomly assigned to take a standard dose of extra strength acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) or a placebo. Participants then completed questionnaires measuring how risky or beneficial they were in judging activities or technologies for American society.
Way and his colleagues then tested risk-taking tendencies with a task commonly used in psychology experiments, the balloon-like risk task. Undergraduates started off with a deflated balloon on a computer screen. They could inflate the balloon, earning five cents with each pump, but the balloon could burst at any time. If it erupted before the participant decided to collect their imaginary winnings, they would lose the money. This task also manipulates emotions using dramatic visual glow and popping sound if the participant inflates it too much. This makes the negative results much more salient for participants than when they earn five cents.
The acetaminophen group did not find the circumstances less risky or beneficial than the placebo group, but they took more risks with the balloon tasks, pumping the balloon more than those who did not take acetaminophen.
In a second experiment, a different group of 189 undergraduates performed the same balloon task, but this time they had to weigh the risks and benefits of more personal and emotional situations, like betting a day’s pay on a athletic event. In this case, the acetaminophen group judged the situations to be less risky, suggesting to Way that acetaminophen lessened the effects of negative emotions, leading undergraduates to rate the situations as less risky.
C. Nathan DeWall, a University of Kentucky psychology professor not involved in the study, thinks this proves that risk-taking can be emotionally painful, and that reducing that pain might make people less risk averse. “What these results indicate is that people are treating the [risk-taking] situation the same way you would with the prospect of physically injuring yourself, âsaid. âTaking risks is actually painful. “
But the effects found by Way were weak. âIt doesn’t take you from zero to 100,â Way said. “These are subtle effects, pushing people 5-10% more [toward risk-taking]On an individual basis, acetaminophen will not turn you from risk aversion to thrill-seeker. But acetaminophen is found in hundreds of drugs, taken by millions of people every day.
“When you put that in a large corporation of many, many people, if it only moves a few people a few [percentage points] on the line, it could have behavioral effects, âWay said.
While it is not known whether sick people or people outside of the undergraduate population would respond to acetaminophen in the same way as those in Way’s study, a slight increase in risk-taking might have. notable consequences. In the context of Covid-19, this could influence how people adhere to public health advice. After a person takes Tylenol, it is possible that while the medicine is in their body, meeting up with a few friends or forgetting a mask at home does not seem so risky.
âThe caveat about this is that if you have Covid-19 and are showing the symptoms, you could be in a higher inflammatory state,â Way said. The body is more inflamed during illness, which could influence how acetaminophen affects the brain and behavior. Way only tested people who were not sick.
DeWall believes Way’s results could have positive implications. âRisk-taking has a bad reputation,â he said. “When you look at the people that most of us want to emulate, these are the people who took huge risks.”
But DeWall doesn’t think that means someone should take acetaminophen before they have to make a risky decision. He thinks these findings add to the idea that there are different ways to reduce the perception of pain, including the painful idea of âârisk. “For me, the results give a lot of hope.”