According to a 2016 study, the hormones released by oral contraceptives may influence women’s ability to process emotional situations—especially during their “pill-free” days.
The study, published in the European Neuropsychopharmacology, tested 73 women: 18 who do not take oral contraceptives (OC), 30 who were currently taking OC, and 25 who take OC but were on their pill-free week.
Scientists were interested in the three components of empathy—emotion recognition, perspective-taking, and affective (emotional) responsiveness—and whether OC influence women’s ability to empathize for better or worse. The research has significant implications for adult women.
“If OC use is linked to a reduced ability to recognize emotions, this might ultimately have negative consequences for relationship quality…by leading to more conflict,” said Sina Radke, corresponding author.
“In light of…the widespread use of OC across the globe, effects of OC are of interest to millions of users, their partners and society,” Radke continued.
Measuring Emotion Recognition
To measure emotion recognition, participants looked at images of faces (one at a time) on one side of a computer screen. On the other side was a list of several terms describing emotions. Participants were asked to choose which word corresponded with the given image.
Scientists found no significant differences between the three groups regarding emotion recognition. Though the women who do not take OC (no pill group) scored the highest in this area, the differences were slight.
In this exercise, participants watched a simulated interaction between two people that displayed a basic emotion. One of the simulated faces was masked. Participants were then asked to choose which facial expression (corresponding to an emotion) would describe the masked face in the scene.
Again, the differences between the three groups were negligible and indicated that OC use or pill phase did not have an influence on perspective-taking.
Measuring Affective Responsiveness
To measure affective responsiveness, participants read one-sentence hypothetical scenarios designed to evoke a specific emotion. They then chose which emotion they would feel if they were in the situation in real life.
Data showed that women currently taking OC (“on pill” group) scored significantly higher than those on their pill free week (“off pill” group). They also scored higher than the “no pill” group, indicating that OC influenced participants’ ability to respond emotionally. Scientists attribute this difference to the increased levels of exogenous estrogen and progesterone in OC users.
The results point to a need for further research and more data to explain these effects.
“With regard to the prevalence of hormonal contraception across the world, determining its psychological and behavioral effects more thoroughly will not only improve our understanding of the non-contraceptive impact of OC use, but also allow women and clinicians to make more informed contraceptive decisions,” said Radke.