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5 Reasons Why Social Pain Is Real

... and what it means for our social interactions.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Many of us grew up chanting these words as others—our classmates, siblings, or bullies—taunted us. As children, we were told to suck it up when we felt hurt or excluded. “It’s all in your head,” grown-ups would say. Or, “If you ignore it, it will go away.”

This time, the grown-ups were wrong.

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In the past decade, researchers have discovered that social pain is very real. Furthermore, for the average person, social pain can be induced through the smallest of slights.

One example is in the Cyberball paradigm, which is often used by researchers to study rejection. In Cyberball, participants play an online game in which they pass balls to one another. They are led to believe that they are playing with other study participants. Suddenly, the other players stop passing balls to the participant. This “rejection” from online strangers (who are actually controlled by the computer) is enough to cause feelings of distress and social exclusion in most people.

More realistic experimental paradigms converge on the same findings. Many of us have felt the pain of having our carefully written online posts downvoted or ignored. Indeed, research indicates that exclusion in online chatrooms leads to self-reported feelings of anger, torture, and hurt. Most of us have also experienced the burn of trying to make eye contact with a stranger and failing. Researchers found that this phenomenon, which they termed “being looked at as though air,” causes feelings of disconnection.

Yet, some people may argue that the prevalence of social pain doesn’t mean that the pain is real. Below I outline five findings that suggest that words do hurt at the physiological level.

1. Social and physical pain share similar neurological underpinnings. It turns out that social and physical pain are not so different. In the Hallmark study on social pain, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine participants’ brain activity during Cyberball. They found that brain regions previously associated with physical pain were activated during experiences of rejection. This same brain activity (in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) predicted participants’ self-reports of social rejection. In other words, even though social and physical pain seem so different, we process them in similar ways.

2. Heartbreak leads to real, measurable pain. Most of us have gone through the formidable task of trying to heal a broken heart. Researchers examined the pain of a broken heart through a clever study of participants who were recently dumped. Participants went through two different tasks under fMRI. In the first task, designed to elicit physical pain, participants underwent hot “thermal stimulations” on their arms. In the second task, designed to induce social pain, participants viewed images of the exes who had recently broken up with them. Results indicated that similar brain regions (i.e., somatosensory cortex, dorsal posterior insula) were activated in the two conditions. Once again, physical pain and social pain were processed similarly by our brains. A broken heart, then, is not to be trivialized.

3. A person’s propensity for social and physical pain can be predicted by their genes. Why is it that some people scoff at the idea of pain, whereas others may be driven to tears by a mere papercut or a gentle piece of criticism? It turns out that a gene variant (the A118G polymorphism) in the opioid system predicts both experiences of social and physical pain. People with a G-allele are more sensitive to social and physical pain. They are even more likely to develop depression after being rejected.

But it’s not all bad news for G-carriers. G-carriers also have a greater tendency to form loving relationships, as they are less likely to be avoidantly attached (i.e., preferring to keep a distance from close others) and to experience social anhedonia (i.e., loss of pleasure from social activities). Furthermore, my research team found that women with the G-allele may be more successful at dating! Being sensitive has its perks.

4. Painkillers ease feelings of rejection. Since social and physical pain share similar biological pathways, it follows that they can be treated similarly. Researchers induced rejection in participants through Cyberball and randomly assigned them to either taking the painkiller acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a placebo pill. They found that those who took acetaminophen showed a reduction in their social pain. This is a game-changer for everyone who is reeling from a broken heart—but don’t go gobbling up painkillers just yet! Another study found that acetaminophen also reduces empathy for others’ pain.

5. New lovers can soothe physical pain. Instead of turning to painkillers to soothe pain, one might consider turning to a loved one. To test this idea, researchers induced thermal pain and measured participants’ brain activity through fMRI as they went through three tasks: 1) viewing an image of their romantic partner, 2) viewing an image of an acquaintance similar in attractiveness to their partner, and 3) completing a word task designed to distract them from their pain. Both the image of their partner and the distracting word task successfully reduced participants’ self-reported pain (although the researchers note that only the image led to brain activity consistent with feelings of reward). Of note, all participants were in the honeymoon stage (within the first 9 months of their relationship). This might be why so many people resort to finding a “rebound relationship” after a painful breakup.

What It Means

As awful as it is, pain is necessary. It is a warning sign that tells us not only when to avoid physical threats, but also when to avoid social threats (e.g., social isolation, a bad relationship) that may threaten our survival. Taking painkillers helps to numb both types of pain, but to truly recover and thrive, we must pay attention to the source of our pain. Sometimes the social sources may be even more troubling to pinpoint and work through than the physical sources.

Furthermore, we often don’t receive the same support for our social pain that we receive for our physical wounds and illnesses. It is of no help that the average person struggles to empathize with social pain and must be placed in a position of social exclusion to fully understand the gravity of it. If someone else hurts because of our words or actions, then we should stop and carefully consider the situation before telling them to “be less sensitive.”

For those of us who are fortunate enough to find acceptance and love, the reality of social pain serves as a reminder to treat others kindly and to pay heed to the little things that we do to include or exclude others, both online and offline.

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