Bitter Pill

A pill that lowers your empathy for others – not real, right? Strictly science fiction, right?

Wrong. It’s very real. And chances are, you already have it in your medicine cabinet at home.

In a crazier-than-Hollywood finding, researchers at Ohio State University have announced that acetaminophen – that’s the active ingredient in Tylenol – doesn’t just dampen your own feelings of pain. It actually seems to reduce your empathy for the pain that other people are feeling.

That applies to both pain in the physical sense, as in, “Boy, that stubbed toe sure smarts!”, as well as emotional suffering, as in, “Boy, I sure could use a hug!”

In their experiment, the researchers gave acetaminophen to half the participants, while the other half got a placebo. After waiting for the drugs (or pretend drugs) to kick in, the two groups listened to different scenarios in which a person experienced some kind of pain: a cringeworthy knife cut, for instance, or the loss of a parent. The participants were asked to rate how much pain they thought the person was feeling.

Weirdly, the group on acetaminophen seemed rather numb to the suffering of others. On average, compared to the group on placebo, they tended to rate the pain lower on a scale of 1 to 10.

The researchers describe it as a decrease in empathy.

“Empathy is important,” the study’s senior author points out in a news release. “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.”

He went on to say that if we want our loved ones to care about us, we should keep all their medications hidden away.

Okay, I’m not serious about that last part. But it’s certainly a thought-provoking experiment. Now, if they could just discover a pill that has the opposite effect…

Pills

Imagine a pill that makes you sweeter… for me, it would be gourmet jelly beans. (Photo by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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