Predictably Irrational

Investigating the Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

The Psychology of Pain: "I Didn't Mean It!"

The psychology behind our perception of pain.
There's a phrase we hear all the time, and one that suggests something about our psychological makeup: we're not just concerned with actions, but with their attendant mens rea - or lack thereof - as well. If it wasn't intentional, then it's not as painful.

And, as it turns out, that is quite literally true: Harvard researchers Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner recently found that we experience greater pain when we perceive it to be deliberately inflicted, rather than by accident.

In their clever experiment, they had volunteers perform a variety of tasks, including an assessment of discomfort. This involved receiving electric shocks and then rating them on a 1 to 7 scale. When participants thought their "study partner" (who was actually a research accomplice) had selected the task for them to complete, they rated their perceived pain as higher (Mean ratings = 3.62) than when they were told the selection was computer-generated the pain was lower (Mean ratings = 3.00).

What's more, deliberate pain was not just more acute, it also lasted longer: whereas participants rated the unintentional shocks less and less unpleasant as the experiment progressed, the intentional shocks remained just as painful.

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So next time you are at the doctor try to think that he or she really cares about you.

Dan Ariely is a behavioral scientist at MIT and the author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions.


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