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.
“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.