When you think about the language people use to talk about social rejection and hurt feelings, you realize that the words used to describe emotional pain are the same as those used to describe physical pain. Headache, heartache. Hurting your knee and having hurt feelings. Breaking a bone and breaking up with your spouse, which result in broken bones and broken hearts. When someone dumps you, you feel crushed.
This linguistic overlap is no coincidence: Studies show that social rejection activates the same brain circuitry as physical pain, the anterior cingulate cortex. This led researchers to wonder whether taking Tylenol�which, unlike some other painkillers, reduces pain through the central nervous system�would dampen the hurt feelings from social rejection.
To find out, researchers recruited volunteers and divided them into two groups. One group drank a fluid containing 1000 mg of acetaminophen, while the other group drank a placebo. An hour later, once the drug had taken effect, participants played a computer game in which they passed a ball around. After a period of time, participants were excluded from the passing circle, causing feelings of rejection and social exclusion.
The study found that, sure enough, participants who�d taken Tylenol experienced fewer feelings of rejection than did those who�d taken the placebo.
Participants were also placed in fMRI machines while playing the game. Brain scans found that Tylenol indeed reduced the neural activity they displayed in response to getting rejected in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula�that is, the brain region associated with physical pain.
A second study found that Tylenol not only blunts your ability to feel social pain, it also decreases your empathy for the physical and social pain of others. As in the previous study, participants consumed either Tylenol or a placebo. After waiting an hour for the painkiller to take effect, the two groups were presented with various vignettes about people in pain. In one scenario, for instance, a person suffered a knife cut down to the bone; another vignette was about someone experiencing the death of their father.
Participants then estimated the pain felt by the person in each vignette, and the degree to which the character felt hurt, wounded, and pained. Compared to participants who�d taken a placebo, participants who�d taken Tylenol rated the pain of others as being less severe.
�Empathy is important,� explains Baldwin Way, one of the authors of the study. �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�.
So should you take Tylenol to reduce social pain? Even setting aside its potential effect on empathy, researchers say more research is needed before people should start taking Tylenol to treat hurt feelings. In any case, emotions provide valuable information and help guide your decisions. Avoiding the pain of social rejection may prevent you from understanding the situation and taking the steps necessary to move forward.
1. DeWall, C.N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G.D., Masten, C.L., Baumeister, R.F., & Powell, C. et al. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 21, 931-937
2. Mischkowski, D., Crocker, J., & Way, B.M. (2016). From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Advance online publication.
3. Ohio State University. (2016) When you take acetaminophen, you don�t feel others� pain as much. [Press release].