Taking paracetamol makes us less empathetic towards others, according to a study carried out at Ohio State University. The results were published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
During trials involving 80 college students, it was discovered that when participants who had taken paracetamol learned about the misfortunes of others, they thought these individuals experienced less pain and suffering, compared with those who had taken a placebo.
In the experiment, participants received four two-second blasts of white noise ranging from 75 to 105 decibels. They then rated the noise blasts on a scale of one (not unpleasant) to ten (extremely unpleasant).
They were asked to imagine how much pain the same noise blasts would cause in other study participants. The results showed that, compared to those who took the placebo, those on paracetamol rated the noise blasts as less unpleasant for themselves — and also for others.
‘Acetaminophen [the US brand name for paracetamol] reduced the pain they felt, but it also reduced their empathy for others who were experiencing the same noise blasts,’ the study’s co-author, Dominik Mischkowski, said.
A previous study by the same academics found that paracetamol also blunts positive emotions like joy. They say that, taken together, the research suggests that we need to learn more about one of the most common over-the-counter painkillers.
Baldwin Way, the study’s lead author, said: ‘We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning.
‘Empathy is important. 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.’
This is an interesting, small study, but in reality will make little difference to the prescribing of paracetamol, which is one of the cornerstones in treating people with chronic pain. However, it is worth pointing out that because empathy helps regulate social behaviour, constant paracetamol use may now need to be considered as a possible confounding factor in such behaviour.
As ever, much more work needs to be done to see if this is a genuine effect and so at present it remains an interesting observation rather than one which will affect guidance on paracetamol usage.
Research score: 2/5