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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 2

How Do Painkillers Buffer against Social Rejection?

Jeannine Stamatakis, an instructor at various colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, answers



Jamie Carroll/iStockphoto

How do painkillers buffer against social rejection?
Lauren Sippel, State College, Pa.

Jeannine Stamatakis, an instructor at various colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, answers:

WE OFTEN feel rejected when faced with the popular clique at school or the office bully. Learning to protect yourself against such social assaults can prove quite difficult, but new research shows a common painkiller may reduce the impact of these upsetting interactions.

A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, may buffer against social pain. The lead investigator, psychologist C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky, hypothesized that the neural overlap between physical and emotional pain might enable a drug designed to alleviate physical pain to cushion emotional pain.

In one experiment, DeWall and his team examined 62 healthy volunteers who took 1,000 milligrams of either acet­aminophen or a placebo daily for three weeks. In the evening the participants described to what extent they experienced social disappointment or felt upset during the day using a version of the Hurt Feelings Scale, a social pain measurement tool. Participants who took acet­­amin­o­phen reported fewer hurt feelings and more resilience to social pain than the subjects receiving the placebo.

In a second experiment, the investigators looked at 25 healthy volunteers who ingested 2,000 milligrams of either acet­aminophen or a placebo every day over the course of three weeks. During the investigation, subjects played a computer game geared to evoke feelings of social rejection while lying in a functional MRI machine. The resulting brain scans revealed that the participants who received the drug exhibited reduced neural responses to social rejection in brain regions associated with interpreting emotional and physical pain. In contrast, the regions associated with physical pain became more active in the placebo subjects when they were rebuffed in the video game. Overall, these results indicate that acetaminophen may decrease self-reported social pain over time.

Thus, the next time you are taking cold medication, monitor how you feel in social settings and at work. You might be pleasantly surprised by how easily things roll off your back.

This article was originally published with the title "Ask the Brains."

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