Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Pain binds people together, part 2

PicanteAs seen in part one, sharing a pain experience bonds people with each other. Brock Bastian (University of New South Wales), Jolanda Jetten, and Laura J. Ferris (University of Queensland) found that, compared to groups who engage in a pleasant or neutral activity, groups that engage in a painful activity form greater levels of closeness. The researchers now want to expand these findings and determine whether this increased closeness translates into increased trust.

To do this, they conducted two experiments. In the first experiment, the researchers paid 62 university students to participate and randomly assigned them to either the pain condition or the control condition (that is, the no pain condition). Those in the pain condition completed the same tasks as they did previously (see part one--in brief, they had to keep their hand in ice water and do leg squats without a break), whereas those in the control condition did similar tasks only without ever needing to experience discomfort (again, see part one).

Unique to the present experiment, after both groups completed their tasks, they played an economic game of cooperation. In this game, each participant secretly chose a number between one and seven. The higher the number chosen the greater the payoff; however, only those who chose the lowest number receive a payoff at all (or so they were told). In other words, choosing a 1 ensures that one will get money, but choosing a 7 has the potential to reap the greatest payoff, although it also risks that someone will choose a lower number, and thus one will instead receive nothing. In this way the game measures cooperation: the lower number selected, the less cooperative a person is, while by contrast, the higher number picked, more cooperative a person is.

As it turns out, the pain condition group did indeed choose higher numbers the economic game then the control group. This was no fluke as those in the pain condition reported higher pain intensity and greater unpleasantness than those in the control condition.

Yet, the researchers wanted to push the envelope a little further. They wondered whether another factor could mediate the relationship between pain and cooperation. More specifically, they thought that perhaps because both tasks, manipulating metal balls underwater and performing leg squats, had clear goals, that doing well on those tasks (despite the pain) rather than the pain in and of itself could be the factor driving the increased cooperation. In other words, the real bond might be occurring between completing difficult tasks, pain or otherwise, rather than because of the pain itself. Thus, the researchers had to design an experiment that isolated pain aspects and removed any goals.

They isolated pain in an experiment where they recruited 53 university students once again, they paid them and randomly assigned them into either the pain or the control group). This time, participants had to consume food. The pain group had to eat a raw Birdseye chili, an exceptionally hot pepper, while those in the control group sucked on a hard candy. Rather than accomplishing a particular goal, the participants merely had to rate the food for what they thought was a consumer preference test. Afterwards, they completed the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) and the Appraisal of Life Events Scale (ALES). Finally, they played the economic game from the previous experiment.

As before, even without an overarching objective, those in the pain condition selected higher numbers in the economic game than those in the control condition. Despite the pain groups being tasked to a pain condition not as traditionally “painful” as the previous experiments, they still reported higher pain intensity and greater unpleasantness to a statistically significant degree than those in the control condition.

Not surprisingly, the researchers conclude that sharing a pain experience improves cooperation among the group. For those interested in religion, this finding has interesting implications for religious rituals and ceremonies. While some may find such matters boring, the very pain of boredom is precisely the point.

For more, see “Pain as Social Glue: Shared Pain Increases Cooperation” in the journal Psychological Science.


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