• Robb G. Best

The Over-the-Counter Medicine That Increases Your Risk-Taking

We tend to think of our personalities as pretty fixed and stable. We divide ourselves into introverts and extroverts, dreamers and realists, risk-takers and those who stick on the safe side, and we often treat these categories as immutable as blood types. However, every so often, science pops in to remind us that our decision-making skills can be shockingly malleable.

According to a recent study by The Ohio State University, acetaminophen, the common over-the-counter headache remedy, can actually increase your willingness to take risks. “Acetaminophen seems to make people feel less negative emotion when they consider risky activities — they just don’t feel as scared,” explained Baldwin Way, who co-authored the study with professor Alexis Keaveney and serves as an associate professor of psychology at OSU.

Way and his colleagues found that, when given 1000 mg of acetaminophen, the standard recommended dosage for a headache, subjects rated activities like bungee jumping off a tall building, speaking up about an unpopular issue in a work meeting, or starting a new career in one's thirties as less risky compared with those who had only been given a placebo.

The subjects also played a computer game that involved inflating a virtual balloon to earn rewards, but losing if the balloon overinflated and popped. The group that had taken acetaminophen were willing to pump the balloon longer. “If you’re risk-averse, you may pump a few times and then decide to cash out because you don’t want the balloon to burst and lose your money,” said Way. “But for those who are on acetaminophen, as the balloon gets bigger, we believe they have less anxiety and less negative emotion about how big the balloon is getting and the possibility of it bursting.”

In previous research, Way and colleagues had already demonstrated that acetaminophen, which is the main ingredient in pain reliever Tylenol and 600 other medications, has psychological effects unknown to most people. For instance, the substance seems to reduce both positive and negative feelings, including hurt feelings, distress at the suffering of others, and even your own feelings of happiness.

However, this particular study comes at a crucial moment. Acetaminophen is the Center for Disease Control's recommended treatment for initial COVID-19 symptoms. And, of course, life in a pandemic means constantly assessing the risks of various actions, from grocery shopping to meeting up with a friend. It's conceivable that someone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms could take a dose acetaminophen and then, under the influence of the substance, decide to take a chance they wouldn't normally take, like removing their mask in public, or even just making a risky turn behind the wheel.

“We really need more research on the effects of acetaminophen and other over-the-counter drugs on the choices and risks we take,” said Way.

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