Paracetamol may reduce an individual’s empathy for other people’s suffering

In March 2019 researchers from the USA published the results of their study to assess whether acetaminophen (also known as paracetamol) can weaken the processes related to positive empathy (empathy is the ability to understand how someone else is feeling or to understand the situation they are in). Acetaminophen is a painkiller thought to reduce an individual’s empathy for other people’s suffering. It is believed that acetaminophen can blunt physical and social pain by reducing activation in brain areas thought to be related to emotional awareness and motivation, ie the experience of positive empathy. In this study 1,000 mg acetaminophen or a placebo was administered, and different measures of positive empathy measured whilst individuals read scenarios about other people’s uplifting experiences. Results showed that acetaminophen reduced the physical and emotional reaction and empathic feelings in response to these scenarios. These findings suggest that (1) acetaminophen reduces the physical and emotional reaction to other people’s positive experiences and (2) the experience of physical pain and positive empathy may have a more similar neurochemical basis than previously assumed. As the experience of positive empathy is related to prosocial behaviour (ie behaviour that is constructive, positive and beneficial to society as a whole), our findings also raise questions about the impact on society of excessive acetaminophen consumption.

Mischkowski D et al. A Social Analgesic? Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Positive Empathy. Front Psychol. 2019 Mar 29;10:538

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