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How Witnessing Pain Online Brings Us Together

New research on how collective attention to pain drives affiliation.

Pain is a universal experience, shared not only among human beings but also by members of the animal kingdom, and perhaps beyond. Pain can leave us isolated and feeling abandoned, but it can also bring us together.

As reported in a recent research paper in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Mitchell, Occhipinti, and Oaten, 2018), shared painful experiences build team cohesion and empathy. After a brief review of research on in-person shared pain, the researchers examine how collective attention to pain in online environments increases affiliation.

Birds of a Feather Hurt Together

One study among the many discussed by Mitchell, Occhipinti, and Oaten found that teammates who had shared a painfully spicy meal, compared with those who had not, had increased supportive interactions during a simulated work task, with subsequently increased creativity.

Social pain—which shares overlapping features with physical pain as far as the brain is concerned (the "social pain overlap theory" or "SPOT," by Eisenberg and Lieberman, 2004)—similarly has been shown to increase empathy, and encourage cooperation and hard work on behalf of the group, according to multiple studies.

Adversity tends to bring us together, increasing cooperation and effectiveness. Why? Well, it makes sense for survival that the group notices when others are in pain, determining whether to band together to face external, possibly existential threats—whether natural, like illness, or human-generated, like war or disinformation.

Exploring the question of how co-witnessed physical and social pain might influence us is increasingly important as we spend more time in virtual environments. On social media platforms, for example, literally millions of participants may witness various forms of suffering, aware that they are sharing the experience with other viewers, tracking the number of views, comments, and related markers of engaging together.

How does this work? Well, that's another story.

Four Theories of How Shared Awareness of Others' Pain Brings People Together

There are four prevailing theories of how collective awareness of co-witnessed physical and social pain influence our sense of affiliation.

They are:

1. Imagistic rituals, thinking and reflecting on painful experiences to create a sense of connection;

2. Perceived emotional synchrony, our sense that we are feeling together, or “collective effervescence”;

3. Moral cleansing, the idea that we may want to rectify witnessed harm or injustice in order to return to a state of moral and ethical equilibrium, which might motivate shared goal-directed behavior, leading to greater affiliation.

Studying Individual Responses to the Online Collective Experience of Witnessing Pain

Study authors designed two preliminary studies on factors driving group cohesion. They sought to determine 1) whether witnessing social or emotional pain in an online environment increases affiliation and 2) if so, via what pathways, cognitive, emotional and/or moral.

Study 1

Participants viewed videos selected from YouTube depicting people experiencing physical pain, social pain, or no pain. They rated the extent to which they’d tend to watch such videos if they saw them under usual circumstances, how much they would track others’ engagement (e.g. via comments and likes) to gauge the sense of collective attention and mutual awareness, how much they thought they would engage in the videos in an actual online setting, and to what extent they felt a sense of affiliation with imagined other viewers.

Study 1 found that over 70 percent would pay attention to both social and physical pain-depicting videos, that collective attention was higher for pain videos than non-pain videos, and that participants felt closer to imagined other viewers, with greater “psychological proximity”. Pain is more salient, it draws our attention, presumably an adaptive response to detect threat and secure safety.

Study 2

The more involved follow-up study explored how collective attention to pain leads to increased affiliation, surveying factors related to cognitive resource allocation, emotional synchrony, and moral motivation. Participants viewed the same videos as in Study 1, completing surveys right afterward (T1) and one week later (T2).

Participants expressed significantly greater affiliation at T1, including increased cohesion and closeness, after viewing pain versus non-pain videos. The only factor mediating the relationship between collective attention and affiliation was perceived emotional synchrony.

Participants who reported greater shared attention to physical and social pain videos reported greater emotional interconnection with other viewers. This in turn correlated with increased sense of belonging: Participants reported they'd want to hang out more, if presented the opportunity after the experiment, with others who had viewed the same videos.

How much they thought about it afterward (cognitive resource allocation), or sense of morality—at least in this study—did not make a difference. While it was higher after seeing pain-based videos, morality was not associated with future affiliation.

Furthermore, witnessing pain did not increase generosity in a simulated gifting exercise, an additional probe of moral motivation. At T2, participants were asked to make an imaginary donation to another person, a low-risk generosity test, as they themselves received a fixed amount regardless how much they gifted. The amount they gave was not increased as a function of witnessing pain-depicting videos.

Implications for Our Increasingly Virtual Lives

This is an early study of how collective attention to pain plays out in an online-type environment, using actual videos sampled from a major online platform to replicate a real-world experience. As with in-person shared painful experiences, the virtual experience of paying attention together to people in physical and social pain increased the sense of being bonded together—collective affiliation, with a focus on perceived emotional synchrony.

Online collective experience is exploding on every level in lives, turbocharged during the pandemic, with surely more to come as technology advances and people seek efficient ways to be together when separated geographically.

The evolutionary impact of collective attention to pain is to increase affiliation and a desire to actually be together both for companionship and to act to reduce suffering. While empathy is the capacity to understand and/or feel the experience of another, to put oneself in another’s shoes or “mentalize” about them, compassion is the urge to act to alleviate suffering when we become aware of it. Working out how to build collective compassion is critical to species' survival.

But work like this could be used to manipulate, creating a sense of belonging and shared values to enhance disinformation campaigns, which rely on, among other factors, group identity and goals. This could drive us apart, creating in-group affiliations while enhancing distance from perceived enemies, increasing "othering" and division.

Chronic exposure to painful situations (beyond a one week study) could lead to desensitization, emotional numbing to suffering, ultimately undermining affiliation and activism. A "bystander effect" is well-documented–ignoring people in need when they are right in front of us.

Future work is needed to understand what works best for the greater good, or as study authors put it, to help “convert interpersonal bonds into sustained prosocial motivations”. It behooves us to understand what our digital social experiences are doing to us, and how we can make the most of our virtual lives for the greater good.


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