The Pill Could Be Subtly Affecting Women’s Social Cognition, Study Claims

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There’s been increasing evidence from both large-scale and smaller studies that the pill has a multitude of effects on women’s health, their bodies, brains, and wellbeing. Now, a new study suggests oral contraceptives could also have an impact on women’s social judgement.

 

If you are one of the millions of women currently taking the pill, there’s no need to start freaking out. As cognitive psychologist Alexander Lischke explained to ScienceAlert, the effects his team observed are just ‘subtle impairments’, so mild you’d probably be unaware of them.

The issue appears to involve the way we identify another person’s feelings by looking at their face. The participants of this study were given an emotion recognition task, and the team discovered a subtle effect in the group who were on the pill – the participants struggled with some of the trickier emotions presented.

It’s an effect that’s been mirrored in past studies, although we do want to note that the sample size was rather small, only 94 participants in Germany. And, when it comes to the emotional impact of the pill, research on this topic is still in its infancy.

That might be surprising, but it’s true. Around the world roughly 100 million women use contraceptive pills to prevent pregnancy or control their menstruation.

Yet even though these drugs are some of the most extensively studied in the history of medicine, today we know surprisingly little about their effect on a woman’s thoughts, emotions or behaviours.

 

That’s because most of the research so far has focused on the physical health effects. These are no doubt important, but it’s also true that the most common reason women stop or change the pill is because of mental health side effects.

Lischke, who works at the University of Greifswald, says there’s now an increasing body of research investigating the mental effects of these drugs. Although with mixed results and less than ideal methods, the conclusions we can draw from this pile remain flimsy.

So far, most of the psychological research has focused on mood and cognition. Lischke’s study is among the first to look at the consequences for emotion recognition and control.

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