Your mom always told you that it’s the thought that counts. And when it comes to pain, scientists appear to have shown that intentions really do matter. Harvard researchers report that people experience more pain if they perceive that the pain is intentionally inflicted.
“When someone steps on your toe on purpose, it seems to hurt more than when the person does the same thing unintentionally. The physical parameters of the harm may not differ—your toe is flattened in both cases—but the psychological experience of pain is changed nonetheless,” the researchers report in Psychological Science [pdf].
The researchers enrolled 43 participants in a study in which they were each paired with partner. Little did they know that the partner was actually a researcher running the study. The participant was hooked up to a machine and told that the partner, located in a separate room, would control whether or not to deliver an electric shock through the machine. In some cases, however, the partner’s choice would be reversed by the machine. The participant could see what the partner had chosen—shock or no shock—and whether the machine would follow the choice or reverse it. Even though the participants always knew they were about to be shocked, they rated the intentional shocks as more painful than the unintentional ones—3.62 versus 3.00 on a 7-point scale.
The researchers say that the awareness of social harm intensified the physical pain of the shocks. Social pain activates some of the same areas of the brain and can be even more difficult to relive than physical pain. Scientists have known for a long time that physical pain has a significant psychological context. Whether it’s the placebo effect that allows sugar pills to dull pain, or the “nocebo effect” that allows imaginary forces to cause pain, the intended consequences have a way of coming true, even if it’s only in our heads.
Pain may also be in the eye of the beholder. In a separate study in Current Biology [subscription required], researchers showed that patients with chronic pain in their arms reported more pain if they view their arms through magnifying binoculars and less pain if they viewed their arm through reverse binoculars that shrunk their arms. When it comes to pain, what you see is what you get.
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Image: flickr / vox_efx