Thinking About Dying Or Just Saw Bad Art? Pop A Tylenol, Say Researchers

After viewing, take two Tylenol and call me in the morning
At last justice! Psychologists are finally admitting that surrealism is painful. Take that starchitects! In your face performance artists! Swallow bitter pills transgressive painters! Actually, swallow Tylenol, because new research says it’s a cure for the headaches one gets from exposure to MOMA.

Of course, it was already well known Tylenol cures headaches. But not headaches caused by bad art or thoughts of death.

So, for your consideration, the peer-reviewed article “The Common Pain of Surrealism and Death: Acetaminophen Reduces Compensatory Affirmation Following Meaning Threats” by Daniel Randles, Steven Heine and Nathan Santos in the journal Psychological Science.

For their first experiment, 120 college kids either swallowed a couple of Tylenol or 1000 mg of sugar pills, and were asked to jot a few words about either their Final Exits or “dental pain.” Why? Well, “Terror management theorists have argued that thoughts about death produce a unique type of anxiety”. Which is similar to the anxiety caused by surrealism, or by “viewing subliminally presented incongruous word pairs”. However, thinking about the dentist is just like thinking about the dentist.

The kids also filled out two questionnaires. First, the “PANAS,” as in “I have an itchy PANAS.” It asks how much (scale of 1-5) people felt like one of several words in the past week. Words like: distressed, excited, upset, strong. It creates two scores by adding up the positive and negative words. The scores are what make it science.

Second, the “How Much To Let The Prostitute Go,” or HMTLTPG (pronounced hymn-til-pig). Yes. The kids read an arrest report and suggested bail amounts from $0 to $999.

Bails for those in the dentist group were roughly $250-$350 for Tylenol takers and $230-$340 for sugar-pill users. In the think-about-death group they were about $275-$350 for Tylenolians and $375-$500 for sugar highers. Meaning that people fed sugar and asked to think about death are more likely to stick it to prostitutes than everybody else.

In their second attempt at producing something to write about, the researchers gathered another 200-some kids. But this time instead of asking them to think about handing in their dinner pails, they made half of them watch Donald Duck cartoons (“designed to ease participants into the task”) and then a clip from David Lynch’s short film Rabbits. After that, it was on to Snoopy cartoons.

This brings up the question why Bugs Bunny wasn’t used as the easer-intoer, because (as must be well known) moving from ducks to rabbits is more stressful than sticking with rabbits all along, especially when using Snoopy as a closer (dogs chase rabbits, see).

The other group, instead of imaging root canals, got to see four minutes of The Simpsons in between Daffy and Snoopy.

The PANAS reappeared, but no prostitutes. Instead, a rioter from Vancouver who was disappointed by the Canuck’s blowing their chance for Lord Stanley’s Cup was used as the bad guy. Kids were asked to indicate his punishment on a 0 to 200 scale, with 0 meaning the rioter shouldn’t be fined, 100 meaning he should be assessed the normal fine, and 200 meaning double the normal fine.

Fines for those in the “Simpsons” group were roughly 118-128 for Tylenol takers and 120-132 for sugar-pill users. In the David Lynch group they were about 120-132 for Tylenolians and 138-147 for sugar highers. Once again, this meant that people fed sugar and asked to think dismal thoughts were demanded greater pounds of flesh.

Since Psychological Science is a family publication, there was no word on the kids’ PANASes, the main measure and theoretical justification for the study. Actually, in neither study could they get any wee p-values out of the PANASes, so they kept mum on them. They called the lack of statistical significance a “disconnect.”

The researchers put the differences down to Tylenol and brain chemistry. The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, you see. Tylenol molecules make their way up there (somehow) and switch off the punishment circuitry (or something). At least it wasn’t the amygdala this time.

Yet equally or even more plausible is the explanation that mixing sugar and depressing situations makes one unsociable. After all, the differences between Tylenol and sugar in the happy groups were negligible, and were of the same order as the Tylenoled-up folks in the harrowing-situation groups. If Tylenol was mingling among the synapses, why weren’t the bails and fines in the happy Tylenol groups smaller?

The surliest group in both trials were hopped up on sugar and made to feel bad. Bad mood plus high blood sugar equals Miss Gulch syndrome? The key result seems to be that defense attorneys ought to be careful about sodapop-drinking jurors.

Most plausible is that nothing is going on, and that even though the experiment was said to be blinded, researchers were over-excited in interpreting their findings. Wouldn’t be the first time. Won’t be the last.


  1. Ye Olde Statistician

    The scores are what make it science.

    No, sir. The scores are what make it Science!â„¢

  2. Ray

    Don’t they know that Tylenol can damage your liver?

  3. MattS


    Safety is an illusion. Life is a terminal condition.

  4. JH

    Many pharmaceutical companies nowadays are mainly doing research on how new variations of existing drugs work on a disease, for which the drug was not originally intended. The idea behind this paper is alone the same line. Irrespective of the study design and analyses, I actually find the objective of this study interesting!

    Some people believe they know everything already and are content with their own preconceived notions, but some people simply have to check things out.

  5. Gary

    Ray, yes, ibuprofen is better for your liver, especially if one indulges in adult beverages, which of course, college kids are known to do, to excess (it’s well documented) and therefore this experiment may have run afoul of regulations about informed consent and the results are invalid.

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