Does the birth control pill stop you from recognizing emotions?

Ana Sandoiu    

Fact checked by Isabel Godfrey

New research that features in
the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience suggests that women who use oral
contraceptives are less able to recognize facial expressions of complex

Over 60 percent of women aged
15–44 years are currently using a form of contraception, according to the most
recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Approximately 28 percent, or
10.6 million, of these women are using the birth control pill. Worldwide, the
number of women using oral contraceptives is at least 100 million.
In addition to their
contraceptive benefits, birth control pills have several therapeutic uses, such
as controlling endometriosis, acne, painful or heavy periods, polycystic ovary
syndrome, and uterine fibroids.
However, oral contraceptives
can also have a range of side effects, depending on the type of pill and the
hormones that it contains. Such side effects include nausea, breast tenderness,
headaches, and bloating.
What are the psychological
effects of using the pill though? Some studies have suggested that there is an
association between taking the birth control pill and having mood swings and an
increased risk of depression.
New research adds another
potentially adverse psychological effect to the list: impaired social judgment.
According to the new study, women who take the pill are less likely to identify
“complex emotional expressions,” such as pride or contempt,
Alexander Lischke, a
researcher in the Department of Physiological and Clinical
Psychology/Psychotherapy at the University of Greifswald in Germany, is the
senior author of the new paper.

Women on the pill 10 percent
less accurate

Lischke explains the
motivation for the study, saying, “More than 100 million women worldwide
use oral contraceptives, but remarkably little is known about their effects on
emotion, cognition, and behavior.”
“However,” he adds,
“coincidental findings suggest that oral contraceptives impair the ability
to recognize emotional expressions of others, which could affect the way users
initiate and maintain intimate relationships.”
To determine some of these
effects, Lischke and colleagues asked two groups of women to engage in an
emotion-recognition task. The first group consisted of 42 healthy women who
were taking oral contraceptives, while 53 healthy women who were not on the
pill formed the second group.
The study’s senior author explains
how the researchers designed the task. “If oral contraceptives caused
dramatic impairments in women’s emotion recognition [as hypothesized],”
says Lischke, “we would have probably noticed this in our everyday
interactions 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. We, thus, used a very challenging emotion recognition task that
required the recognition of complex emotional expressions from the eye region
of faces.”
Such emotional expressions
included contempt and pride, which are more complex than the expressions of
simpler emotions, such as fear or happiness.
“Whereas the groups were
equally good at recognizing easy expressions, the [oral contraceptive] users
were less likely to correctly identify difficult expressions,” reports
More specifically, women who
took the pill were 10 percent less accurate in their emotion recognition than
women who did not take the pill.
The findings did not depend on
the menstrual cycle phase of the women or on whether the facial expressions
were positive or negative.
Lischke comments on the
potential mechanism that may explain the findings, saying, “Cyclic
variations of estrogen and progesterone levels are known to affect women’s
emotion recognition and influence activity and connections in associated brain
“Since oral
contraceptives work by suppressing estrogen and progesterone levels, it makes
sense that oral contraceptives also affect women’s emotion recognition.
However, the exact mechanism underlying oral contraceptive-induced changes in
women’s emotion recognition remains to be elucidated.”
The authors note that their
findings “should be taken into account when informing women about the
side-effects of [oral contraceptives].”

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.