Acetaminophen and forgiveness may alleviate emotional and physical pain of exclusion

Summary: For those who face social rejection, researchers believe they have found a simple antidote. The study reports combining the over-the-counter pain killer acetaminophen with a dose of forgiveness can help alleviate both the physical and emotional pain of social rejection.

Source: UCLA

Most everyone experiences the pain of social rejection at some point in their lives. It can be triggered by the end of a romantic relationship, losing a job or being excluded by friends.

The emotional distress that often accompanies these experiences is called social pain, and it may cause sadness, depression and loneliness, as well as actual physical pain, research has shown.

A study, published recently in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine may have found an antidote – forgiveness combined with acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol.

For the study, researchers followed a group of healthy adults for three weeks and randomly assigned them to receive daily doses of either 1,000 mg of acetaminophen, 400 mg of a placebo potassium pill, or no pill. They also measured their levels of forgiveness on a daily basis using a questionnaire. For example, participants were asked to rate how strongly they agree or disagree with statements, such as, “I hope this person gets what’s coming to them for what he/she did to me.”

George Slavich, PhD, director of the UCLA Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research, a senior author on the study discussed the results.

What is the key takeaway from this study?

When combined with a tendency to forgive, taking acetaminophen substantially reduced how much social pain people felt over time. More specifically, participants taking acetaminophen who were high in forgiveness exhibited an 18.5% reduction in social pain over the 20-day study period.

What made researchers think that acetaminophen and forgiveness might ease the pain of rejection?

Research has shown that physical pain and social pain are influenced by some of the same biological processes in the brain and body. Based on this research, we thought that acetaminophen, which is commonly used to treat physical pain, might also be able to reduce social pain.

Based on the study’s findings, what is it about acetaminophen and forgiveness that help alleviate social pain? Do they act synergistically?

We think they help reduce experiences of social pain in different ways. For example, acetaminophen likely reduces social pain by influencing pain signaling in the brain through its effects on specific brain pathways. On the other hand, forgiveness has been found to lessen peoples’ feelings of stress and anger following experiences of social rejection and exclusion. Based on the findings from our study, it appears as though acetaminophen acts synergistically with peoples’ ability to forgive to alleviate the feelings of social pain that are commonly associated with rejection and exclusion.

This shows a lonely person
Research has shown that physical pain and social pain are influenced by some of the same biological processes in the brain and body. Image is in the public domain.

How does social pain affect people emotionally?

Experiencing a socially painful life event, like a relationship break-up, is one of the strongest predictors of developing depression in adolescence and adulthood. Social pain is also associated with decreased cognitive functioning and increased aggression and engagement in self-defeating behaviors, like excessive risk taking and procrastination.

Why does social rejection also cause physical pain?

We can only speculate about why social rejection causes physical pain, but one possibility is that physical pain alerts the person to the fact that an important social relationship has been threatened or lost. This may motivate the person to try to rekindle the relationship or form other relationships to help ensure continued safety and survival.

Are there further studies planned?

Looking forward, we hope to better understand the mechanisms underlying how acetaminophen and forgiveness alleviate social pain and, most importantly, how we can use this knowledge to enhance human health and wellbeing.

About this psychology research article

Media Contacts:
Marrecca Fiore – UCLA
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Alleviating Social Pain: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Forgiveness and Acetaminophen”. George M Slavich, PhD, Grant S Shields, MA, Bailey D Deal, BA, Amy Gregory, EdS, Loren L Toussaint, PhD.
Annals of Behavioral Medicine doi:10.1093/abm/kaz015.


Alleviating Social Pain: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Forgiveness and Acetaminophen

Research has suggested that physical pain (e.g., caused by injury) and social pain (e.g., caused by social rejection) are modulated by some of the same biological systems. Consequently, it is possible that acetaminophen, which is commonly used to alleviate physical pain through neurochemical pathways, may have social pain-relieving effects that interact with forgiveness, which reduces social pain through psychological pathways. To date, however, only a few studies have examined how experiences of social pain change over time, and none have examined how acetaminophen and forgiveness interact to influence these effects.


We addressed these issues by investigating how acetaminophen administration and daily forgiveness are associated with experiences of social pain over 21 days. We hypothesized that acetaminophen-related reductions in social pain across the 21-day study period would be greatest on days following high levels of forgiveness.

To test this hypothesis, we conducted a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial in which we randomly assigned 42 healthy young adults to an acetaminophen condition (1,000 mg of acetaminophen daily), placebo-control condition (400 mg of potassium daily), or empty-control (no pill) condition. We then assessed their levels of forgiveness and social pain for 20 consecutive days.

As hypothesized, acetaminophen reduced participants’ social pain levels over time but only for those exhibiting high levels of forgiveness (i.e., 18.5% reduction in social pain over 20 days).

These data are the first to show that forgiveness and acetaminophen have interactive effects on experiences of social pain, which is one of the most common and impactful of all human experiences.

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