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Acetaminophen’s Effect on Risk-Taking Behaviour

Could the use of acetaminophen lead to risk-taking behaviour? Emotional reactions to different stimuli can influence risk perception and, thus, risky behaviours.

Acetaminophen, the medicinal ingredient in Tylenol® and many other pharmaceuticals is commonly used to relieve pain and fever. One of acetaminophen’s side effects may be influencing risk-taking behaviour by altering emotional responses.1

The relationship between affect and risk-taking

Affect is most easily understood as feelings and emotions and two theories highlight how emotion regulation can facilitate or extinguish an action. Both of these phenomena may influence how we judge risks and benefits. 

Risk as feelings theory

A theory called ‘risk-as-feelings’ is hypothesized around the concept that emotion regulation is important in decision-making.2,3

The risk-as-feelings theory states that in the face of uncertainty, the possibility of facing an unfavourable outcome after engaging in an activity gets blown out of proportion.

This exaggerated perception leads to undue stress and anxiety. 

The emotional response to the perception can greatly influence the decision of whether or not to engage in the activity. Thankfully, using logic and sticking to the facts can help ease these negative emotions and help make better-informed decisions.3

Affect-heuristic theory

The affect-heuristic theory indicates that we use our emotions to make decisions quickly rather than taking the time to use logic. This approach is an example of using a mental shortcut and may only sometimes lead to the best outcomes.4  

The relationship between acetaminophen and risk perception

Research has shown that people are more likely to engage in risky activities when judgments about behaviours are based on positive emotional responses.

Likewise, people are less likely to engage in risky behaviour when those judgments are based on negative emotional responses.1

Researchers designed experiments to determine whether acetaminophen influenced risk-taking behaviour.1 Participants were given either an extra-strength dose of acetaminophen or a placebo. Then, between forty-five and sixty minutes after taking the drug or placebo, participants underwent a series of experiments to test the hypothesis that acetaminophen increases risky activity by reducing negative affect. Two experiments were conducted in three studies, with the conditions varying slightly in each study. 

The first series of experiments

The first series of experiments involved a form of gambling.1  Participants were presented with a balloon on a computer screen and told that pumping up the balloon could earn them a hypothetical five cents per pump.

The goal of this activity was to earn as much money as possible. 

But, the caveat was that each pump came with a risk of balloon rupture, leading to a loss of cumulative earnings.

The next series of experiments

The next series of experiments involved having participants report their perceived risks and benefits of various activities and technologies in a questionnaire.1  The stimuli would appear one at a time on a computer screen in a randomized order.

Each stimulus appeared for less than six seconds.

Results of the experiments

Overall, the participants who received acetaminophen engaged in more balloon pumps than those who received the placebo. This was observed with greater balloon pops in the acetaminophen group.

In one of the studies where no differences were evident between both groups, differences in drug administration and software may have played a role.1

Interestingly, acetaminophen appeared to reduce the risk perception only when participants were presented with stimuli expected to produce more intense emotions. 

This is consistent with previous research showing that acetaminophen has a greater significant effect on more emotionally-charged stimuli.1

Putting everything together

The findings of these studies suggest that acetaminophen may increase risk-taking behaviour, likely by reducing the perception of risk.1 Additional studies are needed to solidify the relationship further.

Since activities associated with a loss or gain of real money produce a larger effect, it is expected that the outcome of acetaminophen would be amplified in these settings; further studies would need to confirm this hypothesis.1

Studies evaluating the mechanisms by which acetaminophen increases risk-taking behaviour are warranted.

The study of this concept could help reduce signals that can be the start of addictive and life-threatening risky behaviours. 

It would be interesting to determine if acetaminophen decreases the level of anxiety induced by the idea of risky activities, thereby reducing risk perception.

This concept could help reduce anxiolytic behaviours that prevent people from achievements and having a higher quality of life. 

Overall, since almost 25% of people in the United States use acetaminophen,1 it’s essential to understand the drug’s intended effects and side effects fully.

Other studies examining the biological effects associated with reduced risk perception will further solve this piece of the puzzle.1 

References

1. Keaveney A, Peters E, Way B. Effects of acetaminophen on risk-taking. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2020;15(7):725-732. doi:10.1093/scan/nsaa108

2. Lab TD. Risk as Feelings Theory. Accessed April 14, 2023. https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/psychology/risk-as-feelings-theory

3. Morawetz C, Mohr PNC, Heekeren HR, Bode S. The effect of emotion regulation on risk-taking and decision-related activity in prefrontal cortex. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2019;14(10):1109-1118. doi:10.1093/scan/nsz078

3. Lab TD. Why do we rely on our current emotions when making quick decisions? Accessed April 14, 2023. https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/affect-heuristic

Alana Stilla MSc
Alana Stilla MSc
Alana completed her Bachelor of Science in Microbiology at UBC Okanagan in 2013 and her Master of Science in Microbiology & Immunology at the University of Ottawa in 2015. Alana has had a passion for human health and medicine for as long as she can remember. She is particularly interested in the fields of immunology, infectious diseases, oncology, internal medicine, and neuroscience. Her dream is to leverage her skill set to support medical research and make a positive contribution to health care.
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