This post was updated Feb. 27 at 2:46 p.m.
A UCLA-led study found that forgiveness – coupled with Tylenol – could work to alleviate the pain of social rejection.
The study, which appeared in the December 2019 issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, followed a group of 42 college students for three weeks and explored how forgiveness and acetaminophen, an active ingredient in Tylenol, work together to ease social pain.
The students filled out a survey which measured forgiveness and social pain levels daily. Social pain is caused by common cases of social rejection, such as being excluded from social activities, conflict with peers and heartbreak.
Three groups were closely monitored: The acetaminophen group’s participants were given two 500-milligram doses of acetaminophen per day, the placebo-control group was given two 200-mg doses of potassium per day and the empty-control group was given no pills.
The results showed that the participants with high levels of forgiveness who took acetaminophen reported a decrease in social pain of 18.50% over time, whereas the placebo-control and the empty-control groups showed a 0.91% decrease and 1.83% increase in social pain, respectively.
“We have been studying psychological and biological processes involved in social pain and rejection for a long time,” said George M. Slavich, the principal investigator on the project and the senior author of the research article, in an emailed statement. “In this study, we wanted to take that work one step further and try to understand how we could best reduce experiences of social pain to make people feel better.”
Research has shown there is a strong connection between physical and social pain, as they share biological and physiological mechanisms, said Loren Toussaint, a co-author of the study. Thus, he said drugs used to treat physical pain could also have an effect on this mental pain.
“There is overlap between the centers that process social as well as physical pain,” Toussaint said. “So we knew that acetaminophen, or Tylenol, would offer some benefit in the way of easing social pain that people are experiencing on a daily basis.”
The study focused specifically on the relationship between the two factors, forgiveness and acetaminophen, as both have been shown to reduce social pain individually, said Toussaint, who is also a psychology professor at Luther College.
Grant S. Shields, a co-author of the study and postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis, said he was interested in the effects of artificially induced forgiveness as opposed to the natural occurrences of forgiveness over time.
The study showed that when the two are combined, an interaction occurs in which the effects of the treatment are multiplied, Toussaint said.
“If you put the two together, … instead of two plus two, you get eight,” Toussaint said. “You get a much bigger response by combining them than you would get otherwise. They don’t just add together, but they kind of multiply each other’s effects.”
Acetaminophen eases the pain one might feel toward social rejection, which removes some of the obstacles in the process of forgiveness, Toussaint said. So it is ultimately the combination of the two that promotes improved healing.
“Tylenol and other painkillers do a good job of removing some of the obstacles of the actual pain itself in moving toward forgiveness,” Toussaint said. “But I don’t think those drugs would be capable of replacing the positive aspects of life that forgiveness really kind of helps you move through.”
All three researchers acknowledged that, at this stage, they would not be looking to prescribe acetaminophen to treat social pain. However, Slavich suggested that with further research, it may be a possibility.
“We are certainly not at the point where we would prescribe acetaminophen (to treat social pain), but future research could identify similar treatments that may be helpful for getting individuals through difficult times,” said Slavich, an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA.
The researchers faced some challenges in conducting the study, such as participants forgetting to take the morning or evening pills, Slavich said. Nonetheless, the study still had a morning pill adherence rate of 96.55% and an evening pill adherence rate of 98.28%.
“Because this study followed people for three weeks, there is always the challenge that some people did not complete all of the assessments,” Slavich said. “In the next study on this topic, we will try to recruit more people to participate to have a larger sample size.”
This study is particularly relevant to students, as it is common to experience social rejection in college, Toussaint said.
“You can feel easily rejected by a teacher or a teaching assistant, by a lab partner or a lab coordinator, anybody that is in a supervisory or a position of authority,” Toussaint said.
Shields added that the rates of stress, anxiety and depression reported among students are staggeringly high.
“Students today have reports of lots and lots of stress, … so I think that anything that can help buffer against some of the stresses of being a student for students is helpful,” Shields said.