Contributing writer for Wake Up World
Empathy is in decline. Even former President Barack Obama’s memorial speech in Tucson, Arizona, called on Americans to “sharpen our instincts for empathy” — which has apparently taken a sharp downward turn over the last several decades. Many who read this will think, “Who cares?” Bingo! With that one thought, we just pinpointed the problem.
In 2010, research published in “SAGE Journals”, titled: “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis” examined the declining levels of empathy among college students. Using questionnaire responses from nearly 14,000 students, the team found the average level of “empathic concern” — where people feel sympathy for the misfortunes of others — fell by 48 percent between 1979 and 2009. The ability to imagine the other’s point of view declined 34 percent throughout the same period as well. The most notable drop was between 2000 and 2009.
While the study didn’t explore why empathy is in such steep decline, the authors believe narcissism among young people, the rise of personal technology and media, shrinking family size (dealing with siblings may teach empathy) and the pressure to excel academically and professionally, all play a role in the decrease of empathy. (See: Wealth and Social Media Breed Narcissism and Lack of Empathy, Says New Research.)
However, findings published last year in the journal “Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience” discovered another surprising reason as to why empathy is on a downward spiral: widespread use of the painkiller acetaminophen.
Link Between Lack of Empathy and Widely Used Painkiller
A study at Ohio State University found that participants who took acetaminophen (commonly found in over-the-counter painkillers) then learned about the misfortunes of others, showed less empathy than those who didn’t take the painkiller.
“These findings suggest other people’s pain doesn’t seem as big of a deal to you when you’ve taken acetaminophen,” said co-author Dominik Mischkowski, a former Ph.D. student at Ohio State, who now is at the National Institutes of Health. “Acetaminophen can reduce empathy as well as serve as a painkiller.”
The study was conducted by Mischkowski, along with colleague Baldwin Way, an assistant professor of psychology and member of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research; and Jennifer Crocker, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Social Psychology and professor of psychology at Ohio State.
In the first experiment, 40 healthy college students were given a liquid containing 1,000 mg of acetaminophen (a third of the maximum recommended daily dose for adults). A second group of 40 participants drank a placebo solution.
After waiting an hour for the drug to take effect, the students read about eight situations involving either physical or emotional pain — like someone deeply cut with a knife or a person mourning the recent death of their father. Next, participants rated the intensity of pain they believed the people had suffered in each scenario. Those who took acetaminophen rated the pain less severe than the placebo group.
“We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning,” said Dr. Way. He adds, “Empathy is important. 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.”
For the second experiment, 114 college students were given either acetaminophen or a placebo. They received four 2-second blasts of loud noise and were asked to rate the level of unpleasantness for themselves, and then rate how unpleasant the blasts would be for an anonymous person. People who took the painkiller rated the blasts less unpleasant for both themselves and others, compared to the placebo group.
“Because empathy regulates prosocial and antisocial behavior, these drug-induced reductions in empathy raise concerns about the broader social side effects of acetaminophen, which is taken by almost a quarter of adults in the United States each week,” the authors concluded.
Acetaminophen — which is the main ingredient in Tylenol, an over-the-counter painkiller — is found in over 600 medicines and is the most common drug ingredient in the United States. Every week, 23 percent of American adults (around 52 million people) use some form of pharmaceutical containing acetaminophen, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
Not only does the drug impact our level of empathy, but earlier research by Dr. Way and his colleagues established that it also blunts positive emotions like joy and pleasure. (See: Tylenol Kills Emotions As Well As Pain, Study Reveals.) In the study, half the participants took a dose of 1,000 mg of acetaminophen, while the other half received a placebo. After waiting an hour, each group was given the same test, where they viewed a sequence of photographs that are designed to trigger either positive or negative emotions.
“People who took acetaminophen didn’t feel the same highs or lows as did the people who took placebos,” noted Dr. Way.
Previous research has demonstrated the ability of acetaminophen to ease both physical and psychological pain, but this was the first study of its kind to show how it also reduces positive feelings.
It’s currently unknown whether other pain relievers — such as aspirin or ibuprofen — have the same effect on joy, pleasure and empathy as acetaminophen.
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