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Acetaminophen is also more accepted in that we don’t think of Tylenol as altering our mental state. People can take it and still drive a car and go to work and remain fully present beings. But the more it’s studied, the more it seems we may be overlooking subtle cognitive effects. In 2009, research showed that it seemed todull the pain of social rejection — sort of like alcohol or Xanax. The author of that study, Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky, said at that time, “Social pain, such as chronic loneliness, damages health as much as smoking and obesity.” (via What’s Tylenol Doing to Our Minds? - James Hamblin - The Atlantic)
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’ 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.
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.
This all raises more questions than it answers. This study was small. Theheadlines are grandiose. The way people pass moral judgments is not necessarily indicative of their level of existential anxiety. But acetaminophen indeed appears to be affecting people’s perspectives, which further muddies our already complex relationship to the drug.
As Randles sees the value of their findings, “For people who suffer from chronic anxiety, or are overly sensitive to uncertainty, this work may shed some light on what is happening and how their symptoms could be reduced.”
To win at poker, the face must be mastered, and master it is what the best players try their best to do. But a study just published in Psychological Science by Michael Slepian of Stanford University and his colleagues suggests that even people with the best poker faces give the game away. They do so, however, not with their heads but with their hands. (via How to win at poker: A handy tip | The Economist)
Mr Slepian found that students were poor at judging the quality of a player’s hand when shown just that player’s face. Indeed, he noticed a negative correlation of 0.07. This is not huge (a perfect correlation is 1.0). But it meant there was a statistically significant tendency that the better a volunteer believed the hand to be, the worse it actually was. When a player’s whole posture was considered, this misapprehension went away: if a volunteer could see everything about a player from the table up there was no correlation between his judgments of a hand’s value and its actual value. When a volunteer could see only arms and hands, however, Mr Slepian found a positive correlation, of 0.07, between his guesses and reality.
He found that when students rated players as being confident or having hands that moved smoothly, the cards they held were likely to be good. There was a positive correlation of 0.15 when the students considered confidence and of 0.29 when they looked for smooth movement, so they were actually more capable of determining hand quality from these variables than when asked to estimate it directly. The moral of the story for players, then, is don’t look your opponent squarely in the eye if you want to know how good his cards are. The secret of his hand is in his hands.