According to a relatively study, over-the-counter painkillers can dull a lot more than just physical pain. Their research shows that the painkiller commonly sold under the brand names Tylenol and Panadol increases risk-taking behavior. This is what you need to know. (1)
Common Painkiller Increases Risk-Taking Behavior
Acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol, is the most widely-consumed painkiller in the world. Nearly 25% of the population of the United States uses it every week. This is the painkiller found in the highly popular Tylenol and Panadol. A study published in The Oxford Journal in July 2020 suggests that this same drug causes people to take risks more willingly. (2)
“Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities – they just don’t feel as scared,” explained Baldwin Way, co-author and associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
Considering the number of people in the United States (and around the world) who take this drug every day, the impact of this could be pretty significant. The analgesic is the main ingredient in 600 different medicines.
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The Study: Part One
The researchers completed the study using 500 university students. Some were given a 1,000mg dose of acetaminophen. This is the equivalent of one extra-strength dose. The rest were given a placebo.
In one part of the experiment, participants played a risk game. On a screen, they had a red balloon, and there was a button on the left to inflate the balloon, which also won them money. On the right side was a button where they could stop inflating the balloon and collect their money. If they inflated the balloon too much, it would burst, and they would lose all the money. You could cash out on your balloon and move on to the next one at any point. The researchers found that the participants who had taken the acetaminophen popped their balloons significantly more than those who had taken the placebo.
“for those who are on acetaminophen, as the balloon gets bigger, we believe they have less anxiety and less negative emotion about how big the balloon is getting and the possibility of it bursting.” said Way.
The Study: Part Two
The other part of the experiment involved answering a series of questions in a survey format. They had to rate the perception of risk in a variety of scenarios. These included driving a car without a seatbelt, betting a day’s wages on a poker game, and bungee jumping off of a tall bridge. In one survey, the painkiller showed an increase in risk-taking, while in another similar survey there was no notable difference.
A combined average, however, found that the painkiller significantly increased risk-seeking behavior in the participants. The researchers are now calling for more studies to be done on the drug. With the number of people who take it each day, this effect could be highly impactful. Think in situations where lives are at stake, such as while driving.
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Not The Only Psychological Impacts
This isn’t the first time that scientists have discovered a psychological impact of acetaminophen. The painkiller, in previous studies, has also been found to reduce the pain of social rejection. Naturally, this “pain” isn’t physical pain, per se, but a psychological/emotional one. (3)
Not only did the researchers find that this painkiller reduces our own perception of emotional pain, but it also reduces our empathy for other people’s pain. A 2016 study found that when we have taken a painkiller containing acetaminophen, our ability to empathize with other people’s pain is reduced. (4)
Finally, a third study also published in 2016 found that the painkiller reduces cognitive function. The researchers found that acetaminophen reduces our ability to evaluate our own errors. This, in combination with the other four effects that scientists have now observed of the painkiller on the human brain, is certainly cause for concern – and more research. (5)
“[For example] Perhaps someone with mild COVID-19 symptoms may not think it is as risky to leave their house and meet with people if they’re taking acetaminophen,” said Way. “We really need more research on the effects of acetaminophen and other over-the-counter drugs on the choices and risks we take,”
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- “A pain reliever that alters perceptions of risk” Ohio State University. September 8, 2020.
- “Effects of acetaminophen on risk taking” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. July 30, 2020
- “Acetaminophen Reduces Social Pain” Association for Psychological Science. June 14, 2010. Behavioral and Neural Evidence”
- “From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. May 5, 2016.
- “Acetaminophen attenuates error evaluation in cortex” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. February 17, 2016.