Is Altruism an Analgesic? 

New research suggests that altruistic behaviors may relieve physical pain.

Posted Jan 05, 2020

People who engage in altruistic behaviors may experience an instantaneous buffer to physical pain, according to new research. This four-pronged study (Wang et al., 2019) was conducted by a team of researchers from the School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences at Peking University in China.

The findings, "Altruistic Behaviors Relieve Physical Pain," were published on December 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Vaclav Volrab/Shutterstock
Source: Vaclav Volrab/Shutterstock

Previous research has shown that prosocial behaviors and random acts of kindness can trigger the release of various neurochemicals (e.g., dopamine, oxytocin) associated with a "warm-glow" that makes do-gooders feel good. One goal of the latest research from Peking University was to investigate if human beings also experience an analgesic type of pain relief when they behave altruistically.

"For centuries, scientists have pondered why people would incur personal costs to help others and the implications for the performers themselves," the authors wrote in their significance statement. "While most previous studies have suggested that those who perform altruistic actions receive direct or indirect benefits that could compensate for their cost in the future, we offer another take on how this could be understood. We examine how altruistic behaviors may influence the performers’ instant sensation in unpleasant situations, such as physical pain."

To investigate how engaging in altruistic behaviors might impact someone’s perceptions of pain, the researchers created four different real-world experiments. Their objective was to see if helping others (while expecting nothing tangible in return) increased pain thresholds. The researchers found that, on average, those who engaged in altruistic behaviors reported less pain in otherwise painful situations.

In one experiment, each study participant was asked if he or she wanted to make charity donation while they were in an fMRI brain scanner. Immediately after deciding whether "to give or not to give," a mild electrical shock was administered onto the study participant’s arm. The researchers found that people who made the charity donation showed less pain-related brain activity in response to the shock. As the authors explain:

"Using functional MRI, we found that after individuals performed altruistic actions, brain activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral insula in response to a painful shock was significantly reduced. This reduced pain-induced activation in the right insula was mediated by the neural activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), while the activation of the VMPFC was positively correlated with the performer’s experienced meaningfulness from his or her altruistic behavior."

Despite the personal cost of altruism, this research suggests that altruistic behaviors may trigger a pain-relieving effect for the person behaving altruistically. 

Exhibit A: Altruistic Behavior in a Coffee Shop Followed by Pain Relief at the Gym

Last November, just after Thanksgiving, I reported on a study (Oravecz et al., 2019), which found that being mindful of any "felt love" someone experienced in daily life was associated with an uptick in psychological well-being. (See "The Undervalued Power of Experiencing Love in Everyday Life")

First author Zita Oravecz and colleagues at Penn State University discovered that nudging study participants to take note of everyday micro-moments of "felt love” or warm-hearted connection in their daily lives created a psychological upward spiral.

Learning about this study on the power of daily "felt love" caused me to do some self-reflection about when I experienced moments of warm-hearted connection in my day-to-day life.

I realized that before I started using on-the-go smartphone apps in early 2019, I used to experience a warm-glow of "felt love" whenever I displayed some gratitude for a barista's "service with a smile" by tossing a dollar and some change in the tip cup.

Unfortunately, when I started living a more cash-free existence, I stopped leaving tips because I never had loose change or dollar bills in my pocket. Every time I used an app to order coffee, I'd end up apologizing for not having any cash to leave a tip, which made me feel kind of crappy. (See "Want to Spread Good Vibes? Smile and Keep Nodding 'Yes'")

After learning about Zita Oravecz's research, I speculated that creating micro-moments of warm-hearted connection at the coffee shop by starting to tip again might make me feel better. It worked!

One day, I went to the bank and got a $100 bundle of singles so I could start tipping baristas again. Within milliseconds of tipping the person who handed me my morning coffee for the first time in ages, I was instantly reminded of how good it felt. Because so many people use apps these days, I think baristas appreciate cash tips more than ever before.

Of note: Some purists might take issue with using the term "altruism" if an act of generosity involves any type of ulterior motive that benefits the person making a small sacrifice.

After reading about the latest research (Wang et al., 2019) on a possible link between altruistic behaviors and physical pain relief, I have a hunch that being altruistic towards a barista increases my resilience to pain when I hit the gym. My workouts seem to hurt less after a small act of altruism.

Kickstarting my day with a micro-dose of altruistic behavior seems to improve my post-coffee workout. After having a feel-good encounter at the coffee shop, I arrive at the gym in a better mood and my treadmill run is less of a sufferfest.

Of course, there's a good chance that any analgesic effects I experience after engaging in some altruistic behaviors are a placebo effect. Nonetheless, I'm OK with any placebo effect associated with less selfishness and more altercentrism. Believing that altruism is a pathway to pain relief is "Kool-Aid" I’m willing to drink.

That said, the latest research (2019) on altruistic behaviors relieving physical pain has certain limitations. More research is needed to fully understand the possible link between altruistic behaviors and pain relief.

References

Yilu Wang, Jianqiao Ge, Hanqi Zhang, Haixia Wang, and Xiaofei Xie. "Altruistic Behaviors Relieve Physical Pain." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (First published: December 30, 2019) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1911861117

Zita Oravecz, Jessica Dirsmith, Saeideh Heshmati, Joachim Vandekerckhove, Timothy R. Brick. "Psychological Well-Being and Personality Traits Are Associated with Experiencing Love in Everyday Life." Personality and Individual Differences (First published online: October 31, 2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2019.109620