New research this week found that Tylenol altered the way subjects passed moral judgments. Psychologists used that as a proxy measure for personal distress, a relationship that has been previously demonstrated.
Daniel Randles and colleagues at the University of British Columbia write in the journal Psychological Science, "The meaning-maintenance model posits that any violation of expectations leads to an affective experience that motivates compensatory affirmation. We explore whether the neural mechanism that responds to meaning threats can be inhibited by acetaminophen." Totally.
More plainly, "Physical pain and social rejection share a neural process and subjective component that are experienced as distress." That neural process has been traced to the same part of the brain. They figure that if you blunt one, you blunt both. As they told LiveScience, "When people feel overwhelmed with uncertainty in life or distressed by a lack of purpose, what they're feeling may actually be painful distress ... We think that Tylenol is blocking existential unease in the same way it prevents pain, because a similar neurological process is responsible for both types of distress."
In this study, Randles's team gave 120 people either two extra-strength Tylenol or a placebo. They then primed them by asking half to write about what happens when we die (meant to invoke or replicate existential anxiety) and the other half to write about a control, non-existential topic (going to the dentist, meant to focus people on concrete things). The rationale was that "thinking about death is incompatible with everyday thoughts ... and that it leads to the same anxiety ... as frustrated social interactions or perceived incongruities."
Then all were asked how high they would set bond for a hypothetical person arrested for prostitution.
Randles et al, Psychological Science
Among people who took the placebo pill, those who wrote about existential anxiety set much higher bail ($450) than those who wrote about the dentist ($300). But if they took Tylenol and wrote existentially, that sense of moral judgment seemed to be blunted. They set the same bond regardless of the priming.
Then in a similar, separate experiment, they primed the subjects by having them watch video clips. They either watched The Simpsons or a film by surrealistic neonoir writer/director David Lynch, in which humans with rabbit heads wander an urban apartment muttering non sequiturs. They then passed judgment on people arrested in a hockey riot. Again, the people in the existential mindset imposed harsh sanctions, but the people who'd watched The Simpsons were lenient. If they'd taken Tylenol first, though, the David Lynch-induced anxiety was apparently blunted. They recommended the same sanctions as the Simpsons-primed group.