Contraceptive pill may impair women's ability to recognize emotions

A new study carried out by a team of researchers in Germany suggests that a woman’s ability to read emotions may be negatively impacted by the contraceptive pill.

Woman holding the contraceptive pillImage Point Fr | Shutterstock

As with any medication, the contraceptive pill can have a number of side effects, including headaches, nausea, and mood swings. The latest study suggests that this list may be extended to include cognitive side effects.

Cognitive psychologist Alexander Lischke of the University of Greifswald led the study, which aimed to investigate the potential cognitive side effects of contraceptive medication. He explained:

Oral contraceptives impair the ability to recognize emotional expressions of others, which could affect the way users initiate and maintain intimate relationships.”

Alexander Lischke, Lead Researcher

However, the side effects Lischke and his team found were deemed “subtle impairments”, and women are most likely unaware of the effects the pill is having.

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

Alexander Lischke, Lead Researcher

This is the first study to focus on emotional recognition and control, with most other studies either focusing on physical side effects or mood and cognition.

Researchers tested 41 women using the contraceptive pill and 53 not using the oral contraceptive. Before the test, the women were given questions about their age, education, distress, empathy, their menstrual cycle, and their use of contraception.

They were then taken through a test called ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’, which tests a person’s ability to read subtle social signs and cues in black and white images of people’s eyes. The images varied in difficulty, with the more complex emotions including pride and contempt.

The study , which was recently published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, found that women on the pill were 10 percent worse at judging the most complex images of emotions.

Lischke drew links between these results and previous studies that found that estrogen and progesterone levels can affect a woman’s ability to recognize emotions.

He says the “exact mechanism” responsible for creating changes in women’s emotion recognition is yet to be elucidated. It is assumed that sex hormones influence the neurobiological processes that control emotion cognition, and the pill regulates fluctuations in these hormones.

The pill is used by approximately 100 million women worldwide, and can be used to control menstruation cycles as well as a contraceptive. Despite this huge number of women using the medication, studies into the emotional side effects caused by the drug are still very few in number.

The sample size of Lischke’s study claiming that women’s abilities to read complex emotions are impaired was also relatively small, with only 94 women in Germany included in the study.

The methodology in a growing number of other studies around the mental side effects of the pill is also open for criticism, and many studies provide mixed results on the subject.

As many women stop using the contraceptive pill because of adverse mental side effects, it is clear that more research involving larger cohorts, longer study times and more complex tasks is necessary to ascertain whether women’s social lives can be negatively affected by the medication.

Lois Zoppi

Written by

Lois Zoppi

Lois is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. She graduated from the University of Sussex with a BA in Media Practice, having specialized in screenwriting. She maintains a focus on anxiety disorders and depression and aims to explore other areas of mental health including dissociative disorders such as maladaptive daydreaming.

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