How Tylenol Could Influence Your Personality

May 10th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

People don't usually think of Tylenol as a mind-altering drug, but a study shows that the over-the-counter painkiller might do more than alleviate pain.


Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol that's also found in prescription painkillers, appears to lessen a person's ability to empathize with others, a study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found.

Researchers at Ohio State University conducted three experiments on college students to determine how taking acetaminophen influences users' abilities to empathize with others suffering physical and emotional pain.

In the first study, 80 college students (half of whom drank liquid with 1,000mg of acetaminophen) were instructed to read eight different scenarios involving a person who suffers some form of pain and rate that pain on a scale of one to five. The group that took the painkiller rated the pain of these hypothetical people as less severe than the control group.

Pain Scale

The second experiment involved 114 college students who were exposed to four two-second sound blasts ranging from 75 to 105 decibels. They were asked to rate the sounds' unpleasantness on a scale of one to 10 for themselves and also report how much pain they imagined the sounds would cause fellow study participants. Again, the group that received acetaminophen found the sound generally less unpleasant than the control group and indicated that it would be less unpleasant for others.

"Acetaminophen reduced the pain they felt, but it also reduced their empathy for others who were experiencing the same noise blasts," Dominik Mischkowski, the study's co-author, said in a press release.

Finally, researchers had that same group of college students watch an online game by themselves that reportedly involved three study participants they had met. Two of those participants are shown excluding a third, and the observer was asked to rate the emotional pain of that third person. Similar to the outcomes of the first two experiments, the students who took the painkiller rated the emotional pain of the excluded individual as less severe than those in the control group.

"In this case, the participants had the chance to empathize with the suffering of someone who they thought was going through a socially painful experience," Baldwin Way, a psychology professor at Ohio State and co-author of the study, said in a press release. "Still, those who took acetaminophen showed a reduction in empathy. They weren't as concerned about the rejected person's hurt feelings."

Earlier studies also indicate that acetaminophen has psychological effects.


A 2009 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that people who take acetaminophen show less brain activity when they're experiencing social rejection, for example. And a follow up study in 2013 determined that the drug influenced users' abilities to pass moral judgments, The Atlantic reports.

"When people feel overwhelmed with uncertainty in life or distressed by a lack of purpose, what they're feeling may actually be painful distress," Daniel Randles, the author of the 2013 study, told LiveScience. "We think that Tylenol is blocking existential unease in the same way it prevents pain, because a similar neurological process is responsible for both types of distress."

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