Tylenol May Kill Kindness
Simulation theories of empathy hypothesize that empathizing with others’ pain shares some common psychological computations with the processing of one’s own pain. Support for this perspective has largely relied on functional neuroimaging evidence of an overlap between activations during the experience of physical pain and empathy for other people’s pain. Here, we extend the functional overlap perspective to the neurochemical level and test whether a common physical painkiller, acetaminophen (paracetamol), can reduce empathy for another’s pain. In two double-blind placebo-controlled experiments, participants rated perceived pain, personal distress and empathic concern in response to reading scenarios about another’s physical or social pain, witnessing ostracism in the lab, or visualizing another study participant receiving painful noise blasts. As hypothesized, acetaminophen reduced empathy in response to others’ pain. Acetaminophen also reduced the unpleasantness of noise blasts delivered to the participant, which mediated acetaminophen’s effects on empathy. Together, these findings suggest that the physical painkiller acetaminophen reduces empathy for pain and provide a new perspective on the neurochemical bases of empathy. Because empathy regulates prosocial and antisocial behavior, these drug-induced reductions in empathy raise concerns about the broader social side effects of acetaminophen, which is taken by almost a quarter of adults in the United States each week.
“I feel your pain.” – President William J. Clinton.
Bill Clinton’s memorable line during the 1992 presidential campaign (New York Times, 1992) became emblematic of his ability to connect with the American populace. This empathic ability to ‘put oneself in other people’s shoes’ and feel their pain is important not only in leadership, but also in daily social interactions with friends, family members, coworkers and strangers. Among its many forms, empathy for other people’s pain is particularly vital for societally important processes. For example, empathizing with another’s suffering is considered an important trigger of prosocial actions (Batson, 1998; see Eisenberg and Miller, 1987, for a meta-analysis).