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

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One of the only other studies suggested that the pill might impair a woman’s ability to process her own emotions and to have empathy for others.

“If oral contraceptives caused dramatic impairments in women’s emotion recognition, we would have probably noticed this in our everyday interactions with our partners,” explains Lischke.

“We assumed that these impairments would be very subtle, indicating that we had to test women’s emotion recognition with a task that was sensitive enough to detect such impairments.”


To that end, the researchers tested 41 women who currently use oral contraception and 53 women not on oral contraceptives. Before they began, the participants answered questions about their menstrual cycle, contraceptive use, age, education, distress, and empathy.

They were then given a test called ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ – testing them on their ability to read subtle social cues in black and white pictures of just people’s eyes. The participants were shown a variety of intense expressions, from minimal difficulty to moderate to maximal.

An example of an item from Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. (Kawata et al., 2014)

The results were subtle but significant. While the groups were equally good at recognising easy emotional expressions, women taking the pill were nearly 10 percent worse at figuring out the most complex ones.

This was true regardless of the participant’s menstrual cycle phase or the type of oral contraceptive they were taking.

Lischke says these results compare nicely to previous studies, which have found that oestrogen and progesterone levels could affect a woman’s emotion recognition.


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