One of the most popular painkillers on the market may reduce not only our own hurt — it also might dull a sense of others’ pain.
Findings from an intriguing new study show a connection between acetaminophen use and empathy.
Scientists from The Ohio State University conducted two experiments that revealed the link.
In one, they divided a group of 80 college students in half, giving one group a liquid containing 1,000 mg of acetaminophen. They gave the other group a placebo. An hour later, the students read about two cases in which someone experienced pain — either physical or emotional. In one story, a person suffered a deep knife cut that reached down to the bone. Another scenario involved someone dealing with his father’s death.
Participants were then asked to rate the perceived pain of each case. Those who were under the influence of acetaminophen rated the pain experience of those in the scenarios as less severe than the study subjects who drank the placebo.
Another experiment involved observing a ball toss game, in which one of the players was ostracized by two others — causing social pain.
“As expected, acetaminophen reduced perceived pain, empathic concern and personal distress (marginally) when witnessing ostracism,” the study authors wrote.
The findings, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, have practical applications, said Dominik Mischkowski, co-author who is now at the National Institutes of Health. It’s possible that acetaminophen can influence relationship processes, he suggested, such as when you’re having an argument with a supervisor.
Found in medicines such as Tylenol, acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in the nation, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group.
While having empathy for others generally is viewed favorably, Mischkowski noted that there’s a dark side to empathy.
“There are certain situations when empathy is not such a good thing — when it gets in the way of making rational decisions,” he said. For example, if a surgeon is overcome by empathy for a patient’s feelings of pain during a procedure, he may not do what is necessary to ultimately heal the person, he said.
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