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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?

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Wow. Now that was interesting. I’ve been having an anxious moral reaction just today, and there’s clearly a circular process: moral outrage prompts anxiety prompts moral outrage, so the idea that moral reactions could be enhanced in this way makes sense. I think the example you’ve given (prostitution) is unfortunate because – in-my-humble-opinion – the moral outrage in that instance is totally misplaced, but the idea that something relatively mild like paracetamol could have a measurable effect is actually quite worrying: at any given time a lot of people are taking paracetamol.

    I assume that if paracetamol can do this then other analgesics might have a similar effect, say opiates? And how about soma? OK, that one doesn’t exist, but anything that could be used to manipulate human psychology strikes me as potentially sinister.

    “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.”

    Oh dear, if you’d said that in the first person “if I want my moral reaction…” that would be one thing, but the way you have it it looks a little Brave New World!

  2. I would want to know if societies in which there is a great deal of soci0-economic pressure–real threats to subsistence or livelihood–are ones in which persons made harsher moral judgments than those in which such pressures are far less. This seems like the sort of study that can be complimented by natural experiments in the wild, and be given a much richer psychological content with real-world social implications about how punishments systems (formal and informal) should be compared and evaluated. Or maybe we all just need airdrops of soma (or klonopin)–kidding!

    1. Very similar reaction to mine, except I immediately thought of the Guardian and the Telegraph as the obvious places to start, especially given the fact that Guardian & Telegraph readers are (when aggregated) much more powerful than tabloid readers are. Or maybe we should just sprinkle the stuff steadily down from the rafters in obvious places – Parliament, churches, Oxford Colleges, Islington…

  3. Are moral, cognitive and emotional biases part of our personalities or identities? If so, does that have any implications for whether we try to change other people’s biases?

    And even if the moral view is the correct one, AND if we could know it were the correct one, is severe punishment always appropriate?

    I don’t know how painkillers work, but if one takes a pill for a headache, does all the drug get used up on combatting the pain or can it work on more than one thing at once? If not, then perhaps this effect only occurs for people taking them when they don’t need them. No doubt there are some readers more knowledgeable than I that can help?

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