Comfortably numb: People who feel less pain not as willing to help others

VIENNA, Austria — Many people have seen someone act callously or nonchalantly in the face of another person’s misfortunate. Now, new research may have uncovered why certain people just don’t feel empathy often. Scientists at the University of Vienna say a reduced capacity to feel pain in one’s own body displays a connection with reduced willingness to help others in pain.

These findings, achieved through the use of placebo painkillers, are the first to form a direct link between self-perceptions of pain, empathy, and the willingness to help others. Study authors add these results point to the often overlooked social and societal impact of pain meds.

Prior studies have shown that that there is a connection between the capacity to feel pain in one’s own body and levels of empathy felt toward others who are suffering. We know this thanks to multiple experiments in which participants received placebo painkillers that still ended up affecting both their emotions and corresponding brain activity. Other studies also indicate one’s ability to empathize is related to how helpful they are.

Despite those findings, the team says there has been no research focusing solely on if reducing someone’s sensitivity to pain actually leads to more apathy toward others.

Even placebos create a numbing effect?

The research team conducted an experiment investigating this question that included 90 volunteers. They presented each participant with a situation in which they were made to believe another person was receiving varying amounts of painful electrical stimuli.

The group then had the chance to reduce the intensity of this stimulation by exerting physical effort — squeezing a hand dynamometer measuring their force. However, before making their choices, half of the participants received a placebo pain pill while the other half did not.

Prior studies have found that simply believing that you are on a pain medication measurably reduces pain sensitivity. Sure enough, those given the placebos were less willing to reduce the number of electric shocks through their own physical effort than the group that did not receive the fake medication.

It’s important to note, however, that this was only the case if there was pretty much nothing the participant could do to help the other person (reducing the stimuli by one or two notches, for example). Even when the volunteers chose to help the other person, the placebo group still pushed the dynamometer less often than the control group.

Notably, this effect was dependent on how much empathy the participant felt for the other person receiving the shocks. All in all, it appears the placebo painkiller dampened participants’ empathy, in turn leading to reduced helping behavior.

“Previous studies had already shown that such a placebo can reduce empathy. Our experiment now shows for the first time that it also reduces the willingness to engage in actual helping behavior, based on this reduced empathy,” says study co-leader cognitive psychologist Helena Hartmann in a university release.

Pain relief drugs could have a ‘negative social side effect’

This study suggests that even just one dose of a painkiller can subtly change our attitudes and behaviors toward others. These effects could have far-reaching consequences, especially among those with chronic pain conditions and those regularly using painkillers.

“If this is confirmed for actual pain medication and in studies outside the laboratory, this negative social side effect would have to be publicized,” concludes group leader and study co-author Claus Lamm.

The findings appear in the journal Psychological Science.

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