MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dominik Mischkowski, co-author of the study
Former Ph.D. student at Ohio State
Now at the National Institutes of Health
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Dr. Mischkowski: We tested in two double blind experiments whether the popular physical painkiller acetaminophen reduces empathy for the pain of other people. In the first experiment (N=80), participants completed measures of empathy (i.e., perceived pain and personal distress) while reading hypothetical about the physical and social mishaps of other people. We found that acetaminophen reduced empathy for pain in these scenarios. In Study 2 (N=114), we replicated and extending these findings, showing that acetaminophen also decreased empathy (i.e., perceived pain, personal distress, and empathic concern) for another study participant experiencing ostracism or painful noise blasts. Furthermore, noise unpleasantness accounted for the effect of acetaminophen on empathy for noise pain.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Dr. Mischkowski: The experience of physical pain and empathy for the pain of others is probably linked on a neurochemical level, confirming previous research that physical pain and empathy for the pain of others share a common neurological and psychological basis. However, more research is needed to strengthen the claim that physical pain and empathy for pain share a common neurochemical mechanism. Furthermore, given that almost a quarter of US American adults take a drug containing acetaminophen each week (Kaufman, Kelly, Rosenberg, Anderson, & Mitchell, 2002), these results also have significant practical implications. For example, it is speculative – but possible – that acetaminophen contributes to such various problematic interpersonal phenomena, such as partner conflict, interpersonal violence, or even crime; interpersonal empathy may at least partially regulate these phenomena.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Dr. Mischkowski: Future research needs to investigate the exact neurochemical and neurological mechanisms through which acetaminophen reduces empathy for the pains of others, such as through functional imaging research. Furthermore, research needs to investigate whether acetaminophen not only influences empathy, but also social behavior likely regulated by empathy, such as pro- or anti-social behavior.
MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dr. Mischkowski: We are very grateful to all the research assistants who have assisted in data collection and to the National Center for Advancing Transactional Science at the NIH for partial funding of the project.
MedicalResearch.com: Thank you for your contribution to the MedicalResearch.com community.
Dominik Mischkowski, Jennifer Crocker, Baldwin M. Way. From Painkiller to Empathy Killer: Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Empathy for Pain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2016; nsw057 DOI:10.1093/scan/nsw057
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