Nobody likes the feeling of being left out, and when it happens, we tend to describe these experiences with the same words we use to talk about the physical pain of, say, a toothache.
"People say, 'Oh, that hurts,' " says Nathan DeWall, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.
DeWall and his colleagues were curious about the crossover between physical pain and emotional pain, so they began a series of experiments several years back.
In one study, they found that acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) seemed to reduce the sting of rejection that people experienced after they were excluded from a virtual ball-tossing game.
The pain pills seemed to dim activity in regions of the brain involved in processing social pain, according to brain imaging. "People knew they were getting left out [of the game], it just didn't bother them as much," DeWall explains.
As part of the study, participants were given either acetaminophen or a placebo for three weeks. None of the participants knew which one they were given. Each evening, participants completed a Hurt Feelings Scale, designed as a standardized measure of emotional pain. They were asked to rank themselves on statements such as: "Today, being teased hurt my feelings." It turned out that the pain medicine reduced reports of social pain.
The emotional dampening documented in these experiments is not huge, but it appears significant enough to nudge people into a less-sensitive emotional state.
Since that study was published in Psychological Science back in 2010, a body of evidence has accumulated that points to a range of subtle psychological effects attributed to acetaminophen. For instance, a study published in 2015 found that the pain medicine seems to diminish our emotional highs and lows. Another study pointed to a reduction in empathy among people taking acetaminophen.
And a study published in October suggests the drug may dampen the tendency to distrust in people with borderline personality disorder.
"Through reducing our attention to the outside world, acetaminophen appears to nudge us into a more psychologically insulated state," says Todd Handy, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
Handy also studies mind-wandering. In one recent experiment, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, he and his collaborators found that acetaminophen seemed to make people care less about the mistakes they made when they zoned out. During the experiment, participants were asked to sit in front of a computer screen and complete a repetitive task. "Once every couple seconds, something flashes on the screen and you have to hit a button," Handy explains. "We try to bore people so they will actually mind wander."
Handy found that people taking the painkiller mind-wandered at about the same rate as people on the placebo, but their reactions were different. "When people on Tylenol mind-wander, they're shutting stuff out more effectively than people who aren't on Tylenol."
Now, whether these subtle effects are good or bad depends on the context. Baldwin Way, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University who has also published on the effects of acetaminophen, says that in some instances, the emotional dampening could work against us.
"If you're speaking to your romantic partner and their emotions are blunted," Way says, "and they react blunted and less emotional, that can probably have a negative effect."
On the other hand, say you're anxious about an upcoming medical procedure, social situation or a job interview, "maybe having blunted emotions can help you perform more effectively," Way says.
But no one is recommending that people start popping the over-the-counter medication regularly to protect against social pain. Though it's among the most common drugs in Americans' medicine cabinets, it can be risky. Taking acetaminophen can cause gastrointestinal problems and taking large doses increases the risk of liver failure. People often don't realize that acetaminophen is an ingredient in many different products, so they can inadvertently take too much.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Many people reach for Tylenol to ease aches and pains. And it turns out Tylenol may do more than relieve physical pain. Studies show it may help to ease hurt feelings. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Most of us don't like that feeling of being left out. And when it happens, Psychologist Nathan DeWall says we tend to explain it this way.
NATHAN DEWALL: When people talk about feeling excluded, they often use the same words that they would use for physical pain. They say, I feel hurt.
AUBREY: So if we describe, say, a tooth ache or a broken bone the same way we describe the pain of a social slight, maybe the two types of pain have more in common than we'd realized. DeWall, who's a professor at the University of Kentucky, was curious. So he and his collaborators designed an experiment. They recruited a bunch of volunteers to participate in a virtual game. It was a simple ball toss. Now, before the game started, some of the participants were given acetaminophen, which is the active ingredient in Tylenol.
Others were given a placebo pill. None of them knew which one they were given.
DEWALL: And in this game, all that they had to do was press button boxes to throw the ball to two virtual players.
AUBREY: Now, at first, all the players tossed to each other. But after a few minutes, the game was rigged to make each player feel excluded.
DEWALL: Imagine yourself being in the situation. You're throwing the ball back and forth to these strangers. And then suddenly, they just stop throwing you the ball for no reason. That's the pain of social rejection.
AUBREY: Now, what DeWall found is that people who'd been given Tylenol were not too upset by this experience. But he saw a different reaction in the placebo group. He gauged their responses by analyzing brain scans.
DEWALL: Among people who took the placebo pills, what you find is that when they experience that pain of rejection, that parts of their brain were activated that are similar to if they had stubbed their toe or experienced other sorts of physical pain. But people who took the painkillers didn't show it as much.
AUBREY: And how strong is this effect? I mean, imagining if Tylenol really does have this power to ease our hurt feelings, that we might have known about it before now.
DEWALL: You know, I would say, you know, what we found is people still know that they're getting left out. It just doesn't bother them as much.
AUBREY: Follow-up studies suggests that Tylenol may have a range of subtle psychological effects. It seems to dampen emotional highs and lows. It can also increase the ability to just tune out. Todd Handy of the University of British Columbia, who's done some of this research, says what seems to happen when people take Tylenol is this.
TODD HANDY: They're shutting stuff out a lot more effectively than people who aren't on Tylenol. It's just reducing a little bit our propensity to evaluate what's happening around us.
AUBREY: Now, whether these effects are good or bad depends on the context. Researcher Baldwin Way of Ohio State says there's value in knowing the drug's potential effects on our emotions. And he says in some instances, this emotional dampening could work against us.
BALDWIN WAY: If you're speaking to your romantic partner and their emotions are blunted and you're telling something that was a very big heart ache or something that was very exciting to you and they react blunted and less emotional, that can probably have a negative effect.
AUBREY: On the other hand, say you're anxious about a medical procedure, a social situation or a job interview.
WAY: Maybe having a little blunted emotions might actually help you perform more effectively.
AUBREY: Now, no one is recommending that people start popping Tylenol regularly to protect against social pain. Taking Tylenol, especially for extended periods, can be risky.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.