Not As Empathetic As You Should Be? Blame Tylenol!

Oh no! Uncle Phil overdoes on Tylenol again, and now he wants to vote for Donald Trump!

Oh no! Uncle Phil overdosed on Tylenol again, and now he wants to vote for Donald Trump!

From Salon, reposting from Alternet:

“Researchers from Ohio State University recruited 80 college students as test subjects. Half were told to drink a solution containing 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen, while the second half were given a placebo drink containing no drugs. After the medication took effect, the two groups were instructed to rate the pain levels of people in eight different fictional situations — all were emotionally or physically traumatic scenarios. One story involved a person forced to deal with a parent’s unexpected death, another a person with a severe stab wound. Researchers found that students who had taken acetaminophen rated the pain levels of the traumatized story characters lower than those who had ingested the placebo liquid.

In another experiment involving 114 students, half drank the acetaminophen solution and the other half were given the placebo. Both groups were then subjected to brief, loud blasts of white noise and asked to rate the pain levels of a fictionalized participant who had experienced the same. Those who had consumed the acetaminophen solution rated both their own pain and the pain of others who experienced the noise lower than those who drank the placebo solution did. In another study section, subjects were shown short videos depicting a person being socially rejected from a group and were asked to rate the level of emotional pain the rejection caused. Here again, the group that drank the acetaminophen-infused liquid rated the pain lower than those who had only ingested the placebo drink.”


A few reactions to this:

1. Many news reports on these weird studies summarize the findings as “Common pain-killers can make you less empathetic.” “These findings suggest other people’s pain doesn’t seem as big of a deal to you when you’ve taken acetaminophen,” Dominik Mischkowski, the study’s co-author and a former Ph.D. candidate from Ohio State University, said in a news release.

Says Baldwin Way, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University: “Empathy is important. 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.”

I think I know what is going on here. This seems to be one of many ideologically-inspired studies, designed to make the case that those who are privileged and are in less daily distress are naturally less likely to be capable of empathy, and hence have less ethical reactions to the distress of others, including that caused by the conduct of the empathy-impaired.

2. The researchers over-estimate the importance of empathy in the process of making ethical judgments. Empathy is one a factor in caring, but it is essentially an emotional factor, not a rational one. Indeed, neither sympathy nor empathy are required in order to make valid ethical judgements.

3. If anything, an excess of empathy leads to poor ethical decision-making. “Think of the children!” is essentially an appeal to empathy, as is the argument that if one person’s life can be spared, a public policy is justifiable. If acetaminophen can stop thinking like that, then out pass the Tylenol.

4. All studies with this kind of methodology are dubious, because the individual ratings cannot be made consistent with each other. People who are in pain are more likely to be sensitive to similar pain being experienced by others? I’d assume that without a study, but I’d also call it a bias. The logic of the study and others leads directly to arguments like “whites can’t understand what blacks go through,” “if you aren’t a woman, then your opinion on abortion isn’t worth listening to” and “if you aren’t a parent, you can’t know how a mother feels.” Similarly, it leads to invalid arguments like, “Would you be in favor of capital punishment if your son was on Death Row?” or its inverse, “Would you still oppose capital punishment if your daughter was raped, and burned to death like the victims in the Cheshire home invasion?

5. It isn’t necessary to know how others feel to make effective ethical judgments about a situation.

6. What difference does it make if I rate the pain of a fictional person being stabbed as a 3, 4 or 5—whatever those mean—to the analysis that they shouldn’t be stabbed at all? I don’t know how awful being waterboarded is , and I don’t want to find out. But Tylenol or not, I know using pain at any level to force someone to do something they don’t want to do is the equivalent of torture.

7. More from the Salon piece:

“Study authors point to a 2004 scientific investigation in which researchers “scanned the brains of people as they were experiencing pain and while they were imagining other people feeling the same pain.” In both situations, researchers found the exact same area of the brain lit up.“In light of those results, it is understandable why using Tylenol to reduce your pain may also reduce your ability to feel other people’s pain as well,” Way added.”

Wait: we don’t “feel other people’s pain.” That’s absurd. We may say that, and we may even think that, but empathy isn’t reality, and rational people know it.

8. More:

“This isn’t the first study that has found acetaminophen, while useful in treating lots of different aches, may have other unexpected, troubling effects. We’ve long known that taking too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage. Recent studies have found more curious ways the drug may affect those who take it, such as a 2009 analysis that found acetaminophen may lead people to make unduly harsh moral judgments. University of Toronto researchers released a study earlier this year that found, compared to a placebo group, people who took acetaminophen were less capable of detecting errors. And last year, Baldwin Way was part of a research group that found acetaminophen in Tylenol may blunt takers’ emotional sensitivity overall.”

Why the sudden determination to blame Tylenol for man’s inhumanity to man, or whatever this is about? Of course we need to know the side-effects of commonly used drugs, but finding out that Tylenol damages your liver and trying to show that taking the drug turns you into Ebenezer Scrooge or Mich McConnell are very different, as in “crucial” versus “suspicious.”

I’m waiting for the follow-up study showing that Republicans use more acetaminophen than Democrats. Any bets?

9. I do wonder how much money is devoted to studies like this. Whatever it is, it could be better spent on something that actually helps people. I wonder if the researchers were taking Tylenol…

10. You know what the slippery slope of this kind of ideology-driven, “Brave New World”  research leads to, right, or at least what the social justice warriors who dream up these “objective, purely scientific” studies are pining for? Benign drugs that increase our sensitivity to the pain or assumed pain of others, ideally making us all more altruistic, loving, caring, generous, and, ultimately, I suppose, socialist.


Pointer: Fred


30 thoughts on “Not As Empathetic As You Should Be? Blame Tylenol!

  1. … And if the privledge was swinging in the other direction, making other people happy with their bellies full makes us all serial killers? Forget school lunches and neals on wheels and food stamps and feeding K rations, right?

    Nothing brings ME down as fast as seeing another in pain.This study has no relation to anything in real life and hearkens back to the Puritan lack of joy and hair shirts. I’m sure the people using this as fodder aren’t giving up their lattes and cheese cake to be better people.

      • Any effort to study “empathy” is junk science-y, political propaganda-y and social justice-y by definition.

        That’s ridiculous. Your own bias is showing. You haven’t shown any evidence of a political agenda behind this study. Empathy is a universal virtue. The only one saying that liberals value empathy more than conservatives is you, and you’re projecting that onto the authors of this study, based on nothing. This is the type of partisan griping I’d expect to read on Breitbart, not here. You’re above this.

        • I’ve been reading studies alleging that conservatives have brain chemistry issues causing them to lack empathy for years. Someone just decides to “study” IF conservatives lack empathy, or are more rigid, or are prone to bias and prejudice, or are inherently stupid, and amazingly, that’s what the studies “prove.” These bogus hit pieces, which are always publicized immediately by the mainstream media as if it was discovered proof, are exercises in bigotry and “otherizing,” and propaganda to bias the public as well. I only see such studies devised by the left to denigrate conservative views as the product of imbalance rather than reason. Now this study purportedly shows that not having the “right” level of empathy is attributable to a bad drug side-effect. These are politically motivated studies, to create suspicion of conservative positions. That’s what they are.

          What a coincidence that Alternet and Salon are the places that find these studies of interest by their readers. I’m sorry you can’t see it, or don’t want to see it, but I can’t help that. Chill on the insults. Brietbart lies. I see through this junk, and have the guts to point it out. I assumed I’d get responses like yours.

          I’m really sick of the political weaponizing of science. It’s despicable. Measuring levels of empathy by numbers on a scale is classic junk science, just like the “happiness” study I wrote about here. That one was designed to show that having kids made people unhappy, a leftist, anti-traditional family position. Levels of emotions like empathy are individual, ephemeral and not subject to this kind of measurement. The researchers say that the study shows that common drugs have effects that are not understood. You tell me: why, or all the possible effects, was empathy, of all things, the choice? The degree to which empathy should govern policy is a philosophical and an ideological. This is an effort to use strategicly devised research to warp the debate.

          • This was not a study of conservatives, or policy, or ideology. You’re right that the studies insisting conservatives are less empathetic are bullshit. This wasn’t those, and lumping it in with those is unfair.

            • The bias was that the researchers conclusion was based on the assumption that more empathy is by definition better. That’s a leftist position (and a dumb and destructive one). NO empathy makes one a sociopath, but why wasn’t the data interpreted to show that Tylenol improves objectivity, clarity and pragmatism by reducing one’s vulnerability to sentimentality and emotionalism? the reason is the ideological bias of the researchers. It was less the study itself that attracted me than the tone and substance of the researchers’ statements. Biased researchers leads to biased results.

              • “The bias was that the researchers conclusion was based on the assumption that more empathy is by definition better”

                Where did they make this assumption?

                “That’s a leftist position”

                No, it isn’t. If I asked ten people on the street whether empathy is a good thing, I’d expect nearly all of them to say yes, regardless of political affiliation. You have a point that too much empathy can be a bad thing–perhaps future studies can use more complex situations wherein that could be the case. All this one did was ask respondents to give a numerical score of someone else’s pain level. That seems to be a pretty simple and morally un-complex endeavor. The study did not ask people to take Tylenol and then assess whether an illegal immigrant should have a path to citizenship, and it didn’t make any hypotheses about what such an experiment would turn out. Again, you’re the only one projecting a political agenda here.

                ” NO empathy makes one a sociopath, but why wasn’t the data interpreted to show that Tylenol improves objectivity, clarity and pragmatism by reducing one’s vulnerability to sentimentality and emotionalism?”

                Because that wasn’t what the study found! And assessing another person’s pain level couldn’t possibly result in such a score. Again, maybe a follow-up study can assess more complex situations and might even find such results. If it does, would you be OK with that because it lines up better with your politicized view of empathy? If so, the bias is all yours.

                • No, it’s not “all mine.” You just ignore what you don’t care to think about. You ask, The bias was that the researchers conclusion was based on the assumption that more empathy is by definition better”

                  Where did they make this assumption?

                  I pointed it out in the post:

                  “Empathy is important. 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.”

                  Sure random people would answer as you suggest, because the touchy-feely left has warped the discussion, and made empathy a fetish. Being capable of empathy is essential. More empathy is not a universal good. To the extent that the researchers believe or say otherwise, they are distorting truth, not seeking it.

                • I’m guessing he said it’s a leftist position because it’s often suggested that a relative abundance of it is what makes liberals superior. All the evidence you need is in articles like the ones Jack provided links for.

            • Not just the conclusions about conservative empathy.

              “Conservatives are pro-gun because they want to be able to defend themselves against criminal threats of any type.
              They are mostly religious because religious rituals foster feelings of safety in a dangerous world such that the most dangerous countries in the world are also the most religious (1).
              They tend to be more hostile to immigrants, foreigners, and racial or ethnic minorities and to view them as more of a threat.
              They fear attacks by other nations and therefore support a strong military and a bellicose foreign policy on the theory that a good attack is the best defense.
              Apart from military defense, where government is an asset, conservatives fear government intrusions into their lives and particularly fear having their wealth eroded by taxation.
              They are pro-family because being surrounded by close relatives is the best defense against threats that surround them.
              They oppose welfare for the poor because this encourages dependence so that the failures of a society are parasites on the successes thereby inverting the proper incentive structure.
              They admire wealth because successful people are seen as having worked hard in pursuing a moral obligation to provide for themselves and their families in a difficult and uncertain world.

              Everything after “because” is bullshit.

  2. If a politician oozing empathy said to me, “I feel your pain,” I would be very tempted to say to them “bugger off” or something similar. However, real empathy is demonstrated by actually doing something hopefully after I ask for help that I really need. Showing empathy for someone who is just plain lazy or feeling entitled leaves individuals diminished. I think I’ll take a Tylenol if I see that kind of crap going on.

  3. While the media reporting may be dubious and ideologically driven, there is nothing inherently unscientific about studying the effects of drugs and chemicals on human behavior and perception. Humans inherited a complex hormonal system that triggers our autonomous nervous systems in subtle and unsubtle ways. Sulfur and bile trigger the gag reflex. Alcohol diminishes judgement and reaction times. Opioids trigger the brains pleasure receptors.

    When people smile, the physical sensation of raised lips reinforces the happy feeling in the brain. This has been shown in brain scans. When people frown, the opposite has been shown to occur. This is a biofeedback response. When people view faces, “mirror” centers in the brain emulate this process, providing similar sensation. When you view a smiling face, you are more likely to feel a slight boost of happiness yourself. When other people laugh, your are more likely to laugh yourself. (Failure of the mirror centers of the brain to provide this psuedo-feedback is one working theory behind the social difficulties experienced by those with Autism).

    These are all subconscious, reflexive responses in the brain. They themselves have no inherent ethical implications, but by directly influencing how one thinks, they have the potential to introduce biases into our thinking. Ethical reasoning requires knowing ones biases or potential conflicts of interest, and taking steps to account for them. Failure to account for subtle biological biases does not relieve one of the consequences of one’s decisions or actions.

    All the study shows is that pain killers that block pain receptors, blocking part of the biofeedback system the autonomous nervous system uses to evaluate one’s environment seems to also block affect the mirror centers in the brain that autonomously identify sadness or pain in others. Like any drug that affect perception, Tylenol/acetaminophen has undesirable side effects one must account for, lest they make unwise choices.

    Alcohol users who ignore the side effects risk failing to notice red lights or pedestrians in the roadway. Tylenol users who ignore or are unaware of the side effects risk missing subtle social clues that might make them appear to be slightly more of a jerk (of course, whatever ever pain that prompted the taking of Tylenol in the first place might also contribute to an acutely cankerous temporary disposition, too). Portraying the Tylenol as having a material impact on one’s overall empathy and relationships is sloppy and irresponsible journalism. But the underlying science that the media is misreporting has important potential implications for understanding the effect of drugs and pain management techniques on human behavior in a macro sense.

    • You can’t blame all of this on the media. I repeat: why wasn’t the alleged side affect represented by researches as a possible benefit, like aspirin preventing strokes? Why empathy? why not envy, ambition, shyness, or a dozen other emotions and states of mind?

  4. There is precisely nothing definitive to be learned from a study of 100 or so undergraduates. The sample size is too small to accurately determine anything. Assuming that the methodology would even hold up to mild scrutiny, which it would not, based solely on the size and demographics of the ‘study’. This is not even an adequate sample to derive any accurate data points about the undergraduates at the institution where the ‘study’ was done,(Ohio State University has 51,000 undergraduates, so the sample noted represents about 1/6 of 1%), much less about the whole of humanity. That makes this ‘study’ worthless, headline grabbing bullshit. Utter nonsense.

    • Good point, and not to mention all the other design flaws in this “study”. I don’t even think they tried to make it statistically valid. They knew it was garbage from the get-go. Psychologists don’t enter grad school without having done statistics classes and a research capstone project.

      • Today the Times, in an all global warming indoctrination issue, quotes from dubious studies linking climate change to violence. One of them says that researchers have determined than in warmer weather, pitchers in MLB are more likely to throw at batters to injure them.

        1. Pitchers literally NEVER throw at a batter to harm him.
        2. The two months when pitchers are least likely to throw to hit a batter are April, when the season has just started and the games are less intense, and September, when nobody wants to lose a player to injury or suspension, since the post season berths are on the line. Gee, those are also the two coolest months.
        3. I’d pots on it, but I’ve had my liberal junk science post of the weekend.

  5. To me, the study shows the limitations of how empathy works. Empathy is a meta-skill, combining imagination and intuition to individualize interactions. However, your imagination is to some extent limited by what sort of experiences you’ve had, and your intuition needs calibration through further experiences.

    What this means is that regardless of the actual empathy skills of those people, they lacked experience using empathy with others while on painkillers. They were using themselves as a starting reference frame, like most empathy users, and since their pain threshold had gone up, their mental estimates of everyone else’s did too.

    If they had spent time on painkillers and with a person in pain, their empathy would lead them to realize that the other person reacted to pain more than they did and should be treated accordingly. Empathy doesn’t literally allow you to feel another person’s pain; emotions are virtually impossible to measure because they can only be functionally defined as states of mind which skew a person’s outputs for a given input. The same situation might affect two people’s emotions in completely different ways, and a person may do two completely different things in the “same” mood.

    What empathy does do, however, is allow you to discover how to treat anyone with respect, help them feel differently, and convince them to do things they might not normally do. It is neither good nor evil, but it is absolutely necessary to create positive change, as without it, communication and bridging paradigms is impossible.

    • I was in a relationship with a woman who had a marked lack of empathy. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word, as in a genuine pathology. There was literally nothing there; a wall that prevented any meaningful communication with her. It was a bizarre, frustrating, and painful experience.

  6. Well, tonight, I’m going to blame myself and my refusal to take melatonin for my not sleeping. I have little to no empathy for myself.

    • Ambien and clonidine for 1 week, then diphenhydramine and clonidine for the next week and back again is the only thing that works for me. I have terrible sleep issues.

  7. I read this article and two things spring to mind:

    1) Taking too much of ANYTHING can damage your liver. Acetaminophen is not some uniquely special edge case here.

    2) “Brought to you by the makers of Motrin.” (Or maybe Bayer. Hell, it could be Anacin for all I know.)


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