Paracetamol Can Soften Our Moral Reactions
Our moral reactions are easily influenced by a variety of factors. One of them is anxiety. When people are confronted with disturbing experiences like mortality salience (i.e., being made aware of their own eventual death), they tend to affirm their moral beliefs. As a result, they feel inclined to punish moral transgression more harshly than they would without feeling fundamentally threatened. For example, in a now classical study people who objected to prostitution were asked to suggest a penalty for a woman arrested for prostitution. Participants who were led to reflect on their own mortality beforehand proposed a far higher bail than participants who thought about a less anxiety inducing topic. Such belief affirmation effects can also be evoked by psychologically disturbing experiences less severe than mortality salience. Hence, anxiety aroused by different situations can make our moral reactions more pronounced.
Some days ago, an interesting study has been published in “Psychological Science”. The authors showed that the common over-the-counter pain reliever paracetamol counteracts the belief-affirming effect of anxiety. Participants who took a placebo showed the familiar response pattern in the “prostitution paradigm”. They suggested a harsher penalty for the prostitute under mortality salience (a bail of around $450) compared to a control condition (around $300). Participants who took paracetamol, however, didn’t react on mortality salience. Independent of what they had reflected on before, they suggested the same penalty for the prostitute (around $300). Paracetamol seems to have reduced the fundamental anxiety participants felt due to the mortality salience manipulation, so they didn’t have to affirm their moral beliefs that strongly. In a second experiment, the same effect of paracetamol was shown using a different disturbing experience (a surrealistic movie instead of mortality salience) and a different measurement for belief affirmation (a fine for rioters instead of a bail for a prostitute).
Hence, besides killing physical pain, paracetamol seems to be capable of counteracting the effect anxiety has on our moral reactions. From a scientific perspective, this certainly is an interesting finding. But what can we make out of it from a practical ethics perspective? If we want a person’s moral reaction to be the result of cognition rather than emotion, paracetamol could be a means for bias reduction. However, some people might argue that in case a person’s moral belief is the “correct” one, wanting transgressions to be punished comparatively severely might not be such a bad thing, even if the motivation for that is anxiety. What do you think?