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Is Tylenol Dulling Our Capacity for Empathy?

New research finds that acetaminophen makes us more indifferent to others' pleasure, as well as their pain.
A package of Tylenol, which contains acetaminophen, is pictured on April 14th, 2015, in Chicago, Illinois.

A package of Tylenol, which contains acetaminophen, is pictured on April 14th, 2015, in Chicago, Illinois.

It is frequently lamented that we have become a me-first society, in which people care little about the welfare of others. This ethos, arguably personified by our president, has been blamed in part on modern technology, and especially on social media.

But new research points to a very different and unexpected culprit: Tylenol.

In a follow-up to a startling 2016 study reporting that use of the popular painkiller acetaminophen dulls our response to others' suffering, Ohio State University psychologist Dominik Mischkowski reports that it also makes us more indifferent to their pleasure.

"Given that an estimated quarter of all U.S. adults consume a drug containing acetaminophen every week, this research really matters," Mischkowski said in announcing the findings. Amplifying his point, another new study finds that the ability and willingness to empathize with others promotes cooperative behavior.

Any substance that imperils that process poses problems for society—especially if such a substance is available at every convenience store in the country. Walk in with a throbbing head, walk out with a hardened heart.

The study, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, featured 114 university undergraduates. As part of a double-blind experiment (in which neither they nor the experimenter knew which substance they were getting), they consumed 1,000 mg of either liquid acetaminophen or a placebo.

One hour later, they read four scenarios in which something positive happened to another person. One scenario, for example, described a marriage proposal that was accepted. Another featured a woman who was "told she had earned a raise for the great job she was doing," and could thus get her son the birthday gift he wanted.

For each scenario, participants reported the degree to which they felt the main character had experienced pleasure. They then reported their own emotional reaction to the story, noting on a five-point scale the degree to which they felt pleasure, delight, uplift, joy, and cheer. Finally, they indicated the extent to which they felt sympathetic, warm, compassionate, tender, and moved toward the central characters.

The result: "Acetaminophen reduced the emphatic emotional response when reading about people having positive experiences, but did not affect perceptions about these people's positive experiences," the researchers report. Intellectually, in other words, the subjects understood that good things were happening; they just didn't care all that much.

Mischkowski and his colleagues believe this effect is the result of the way the popular drug affects the brain.

"Acetaminophen blunts physical and social pain by reducing activations in brain areas thought to be related to emotional awareness and motivation," they write. "Some neuro-imaging research suggests the experience of positive empathy also recruits these [same] brain areas," making it equally vulnerable to the effects of the drug.

These findings have disturbing practical implications. "Positive empathy provides part of the 'social glue' from which interpersonal bonds are built and strengthened," the researchers write. "A substantial amount of research shows that understanding and sharing in others people's pleasurable experiences fosters psychological health, interpersonal trust, intimacy, and a pro-social orientation, both for the source and recipient of positive empathy."

While acetaminophen is clearly not America's most pressing drug problem, it's one worth taking seriously. Diminishing your humanity is quite a price to pay for dulling your headache.