Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Pain binds people together, part 1

Blue friendsVarious religions and rituals in some way involve pain. From rites of passage that include hunting on without adult guidance, to painful hooks inserted beneath tendons, pain rituals are found across cultures. Yet, also in these rituals, often people share pain together. Brock Bastian (University of New South Wales), Jolanda Jetten, and Laura J. Ferris (University of Queensland) wanted to investigate whether pain and social bonding have some sort of link together. As it turns out, shared pain correlates with greater social cohesion.

To test their hypothesis that sharing the experience of pain promotes interpersonal bonds and corporation, the researchers conducted three experiments. In the first experiment, 54 Australian university students received financial compensation to participate. The researchers randomly allocated all the participants into one of two groups: the pain condition group or the no pain control group. All participants had to find metal balls on the bottom of a water container and place as many of them as possible into a smaller container (also underwater). For those in the pain condition, the water rested at ice cold temperatures, while for those in the control condition, the water rested simply at room temperature. After that, all participants engaged in leg squats. As with the previous task, those in the pain condition faced a more difficult challenge for, unlike those in the control condition, they had no option take breaks or to lean against anything.

Resting from obstacles for a bit, all participants completed the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) and the Appraisal of Life Events Scale (ALES). The former measures positive and negative emotions (for example, fear, self-assurance), while the latter rates how threatening or challenging an activity is. Participants then answered seven questions relating to how closely bonded they felt to the other participants in their group (the questions were: “I feel a sense of solidarity with the other participants,” “I feel connected to the other participants,” “I feel part of this group of participants,” “I feel a sense of loyalty to the other participants,” “I feel I can trust the other participants,” “I feel that the participants in this study have a lot in common,” and “I feel like there is unity between the participants in this study”). Lastly, participants rated the painfulness and unpleasantness of their tasks (the metal ball moving and leg squats).

Not surprisingly, those in the pain condition reported higher pain intensity and unpleasantness compared to those in the control condition. Oddly enough, those in both conditions rated their tasks as having the same level of difficulty. As predicted, those in the pain condition reported higher bonding and closeness compared to those in the control condition. Importantly, one of the tasks involved a clear goal, that is, moving metal balls around from one container to another, meaning that both groups had the potential to bond socially yet those in the pain condition did so to a greater statistically significant degree than those in the control group.

It appears, then, that sharing pain experiences can increase social bonding and trust. The next question for the researchers is, “Does this extend to cooperation?” In other words, does this increased social bond gained from a shared pain experience translate into actually trusting those people more with whom one has shared that painful experience? For that, the researchers had to conduct two additional experiments, which will be covered in part two.

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