The consumption of paracetamol could influence society by making it less empathetic and more selfish

The consumption of paracetamol could influence society by making it less empathetic and more selfish

Paracetamol is one of the most consumed and prescribed drugs due to its efficacy and safety. We can find this active principle in multiple formats, in tablets, effervescent tablets, capsules, sachets …

However, a recent study suggested that the consumption of this drug could be causing social effects, as it could be reducing people’s empathy while they are taking it .


We call empathy to the affective participation of a person in a reality alien to her, generally in the feelings of another person. That is, empathy is one of the main elements to consolidate our relationships with others, and also a brake on our egoism or our narcissism. But what if acetaminophen was reducing this important psychological trait?

In a study led by Dominik Mischkowski , 114 participants received 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen or a placebo. After one hour, the participants looked at four scenarios that described two men and women who had a positive experience. While observing each scenario, participants rated how positive they experienced the scenarios, how much pleasure they thought the people who appeared in each scenario experienced, how much pleasure the participants themselves experienced from these scenarios, and how much empathy they had for the people who appeared in them .

The study found that while acetaminophen reduces personal pleasure and empathic feelings, it has no effect on perceptions of pleasure and positivity .

Scientists know that acetaminophen mitigates physical pain by reducing activity in certain areas of the brain, such as the insular cortex, which play an important role in our emotions. These areas are also involved in our experience of social pain, and interestingly, acetaminophen can make us feel better after experiencing some form of social rejection from others .

Medications and mood

We are all familiar with the effects of many illegal drugs, however the drugs prescribed by doctors can also have important effects on the behavior of patients. From acetaminophen to antihistamines, statins, asthma medications, and antidepressants, there is growing evidence that they can make us more impulsive, more angry, or more restless, and change other parameters of our personality .

For example, several studies have supported a possible link between irritability and statins (a group of drugs used to lower cholesterol and triglycerides in their various forms), including a randomized controlled trial , which involved more than 1,000 people. The drug was then found to increase aggression in postmenopausal women, although, curiously, not in men.

A strange case was that of Pramipexole, a drug that was given in 2001 to treat Parkinson’s patients: many of the patients, even those who had never shown interest in gambling, became gamblers .

One reason that drugs can have such a psychological influence is that the body is not just a bag of separate organs, awash in chemicals with well-defined functions, but it is a network in which many different processes are linked.

Technically, acetaminophen is not changing our personalities, because the effects only last for a few hours and few of us take it continuously. But Mischkowski emphasizes that we need to be informed about the ways it affects us .