Skip to main content

A Painkiller for Human Angst?

Forget backaches and scraped knees—Tylenol can dull the existential pain of living.


From bombs in Boston to ricin on Capitol Hill to an explosion in Texas so powerful it was felt over 100 miles away, tragedy and terror surround us this week. We struggle to make sense of senseless violence, of cowardice and hate, of legless runners and lifeless children.

And when there’s no logic to be found? We cling tightly to our core beliefs.

That’s according to a psychological theory known “compensatory affirmation,” anyway. Faced with a pain, threat, or discomfort we can’t alleviate, we “compensate” by affirming the strength of our values. We may not think, “I’m feeling anxious,” or “I’m feeling unsettled.” Instead, we rally by espousing strong support for ideals we believe in.

We “Like” photos of heroic, cowboy-hat-wearing bystanders, and retweet stories about racers who didn’t quit running 'til they reached Mass General to donate blood. We pen op-edsabout the beautiful fuck-you resilience of Americans in general, and Bostonians in particular.

"There’s good reason to suspect the same region of the brain handles all these types of conflicting experiences, whether its stubbing your toe or being stood up on a date."

Daniel Randles, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, writes about “compensatory affirmation” in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. And as it turns out, the way we experience “social pain” (e.g. a bad breakup) may not be all that different from how experience physical pain (e.g. a sprained ankle).

“There have been some researchers looking at the common component to physical pain and social pain—feelings of rejection, ostracism, or frustration,” he told me. “They’ve been arguing that the brain region responsible for one type of experience is the same that handles the other, that subjectively they feel similar.”

Which brings us to ... Tylenol.

In a 2010paper (PDF), Nathan DeWall, of the University of Kentucky, demonstrated that subjects who took a daily dose of Tylenol—better known for alleviating backaches than anxiety—reported feeling less “social pain” after three weeks than subjects who took a placebo; they were better equipped to deal with rejection, too.

“There’s good theoretical reason to suspect that the same region of the brain handles all these types of conflicting, bothersome experiences,” Randles says, “whether its stubbing your toe or being stood up on a date.”

In other words, if Tylenol can soothe a sore toe, mightn’t it also soothe a bruised soul?

Randles designed his own Tylenol experiments to test the idea that physical and “social” pain share a common denominator. In one, he asked some participants to write about their own deaths—a task designed to stir up feelings of uncertainty and existential dread. In another, he showed subjects clips of the David Lynch film Rabbits, a movie it “hurts” to watch. (“Whether because of non-linear dream imagery, the unsettling juxtaposition of the beautiful alongside the horrifying, or the surreal disconnect between the events and characters’ reactions,” Randles writes, “Lynch’s films have the ability to disturb, offend, or mystify.”) Control subjects, meanwhile, were asked to write on more banal topics, or to watch clips of The Simpsons.

To determine whether “social pain”—musing on one’s mortality, or watching a Lynch nightmare—caused participants to “compensate” and cling tightly to core values, Randles then asked his subjects to pretend they were sentencing convicted criminals. In theory, subjects feeling “social pain” and looking for values to affirm (e.g. justice, law and order) would hand down more draconian sentences than their peers.

Which they did—kind of. As Randles explains in his paper, “social pain” subjects who had been given a healthy, 1,000-miligram dose of Tylenol before the experiment behaved far differently than “social pain” subjects who’d been given a sugar pill.

In fact, “social pain” participants who were blissed out on painkillers—despite having suffered through Lynch clips or a death essay—imposed similar sentences as control participants.

It was “social pain” participants who’d gone through the experiment Tylenol-free that were less forgiving. They imposed fines that were, on average, 50 percent higher, and sentences that were 20 percent “harsher,” than their peers.

“It was certainly a surprise for us when the first study worked,” Randles told me. “We had good theoretical reason to expect it, but nobody talks about Tylenol in the sense of alleviating distress or anxiety.”

Oddly, when the subjects were debriefed, only half could correctly guess whether they had been given Tylenol or a placebo. They might as well have been flipping a coin. So while the painkiller obviously did allay “social pain,” the participants weren’t aware of it influencing their behavior.

“That’s a puzzle we still don’t fully understand,” Randle says. “Why is it we seem to be getting an effect with the Tylenol, and yet they can’t seem to tell the difference?”

Effective or not, he adds, “We certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone start taking Tylenol just because they’re having a weird day.”

In Boston, of course, it’s a moot point—for the human hurt there this week, there’s no painkiller strong enough anyway.