Paracetamol may dull pleasure as well as pain

Researchers discover that over-the-counter painkiller could affect intensity of people's emotions


The pain-reducing effects of paracetamol are well documented, but according to a new study the popular over-the-counter pill could also dull emotions, including pleasure.

According to Geoffrey Durso, a social psychologist at Ohio State University, taking paracetamol (or acetaminophen) suppresses not just aches and pains but also a broad range of emotional reactions. "Rather than just being a pain reliever, acetaminophen can be seen as an all-purpose emotion reliever," said Durso.

In the experiment, published in the journal Psychological Science, 82 volunteers were asked to take a pill and look at a series of pictures. Half of the group were given paracetamol and the other half took a placebo.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Each picture was designed to provoke a strong emotional response – some showed images of malnourished children, others showed young people playing with cats.

Volunteers were then asked to rate how positive or negative each picture was, with -5 being the most negative and +5 the most positive.

The experiment was then run for a second time with the same set of pictures, but this time volunteers were asked to rate the intensity of their emotional reaction on a scale of one to ten.

The results indicated that people who had taken paracetamol found the negative images less upsetting and the happy pictures less positive.

"People who took acetaminophen didn't feel the same highs or lows as did the people who took placebos," said one of the study's co-authors, Baldwin Way.

The difference between the emotional response was not pronounced, The Guardian notes, but still potentially significant. Students who took the placebo reported an average emotional intensity of 6.76 compared with an average of 5.85 for those who had taken paracetamol.

The Ohio State University researchers now intend to expand their study to look at other common painkillers including ibuprofen and aspirin.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.