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Dreading pain can be worse than pain itself

21 November 2013

Faced with inevitable pain, most people would choose to get it out of the way as soon as possible, according to a new study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, and published in PLOS Computational Biology.

Researchers from the Institute of Global Health Innovation (IGHI) at Imperial College London and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging (WTCN) at UCL Institute of Neurology, asked 35 volunteers to choose between electric shocks of different intensity occurring at different times. They found that most people chose to hasten the pain, and would even accept more severe pain to avoid having to wait for it. A smaller proportion preferred to put it off into the future. 

They found similar results when they asked the volunteers to choose between imagined dental appointments involving different levels of pain.

The research team sought to better understand the fundamental processes by which people anticipate pain, with the hope of providing new insight into these conditions.
In 71 per cent of tests, the participants chose to have the pain earlier, even though in half of the tests that meant a more painful stimulus.

Dr Giles Story, from the IGHI at Imperial and WTCN at UCL Institute of Neurology, said: “When people are offered a reward, they prefer to have it as soon as possible, which could be interpreted to mean that we rate future experiences as less important when we’re making decisions. This reasoning would suggest that you would put off unpleasant things to the future as well.

“We found that this isn’t the case for most people. If pain can’t be avoided, most people choose to get it out of the way sooner, even if that means the pain is worse.
“This might make sense if anticipating pain stops you from doing things well or enjoying yourself. We’re planning to investigate this in our next studies.”

Read more:

G.W. Story et al. Dread and the Disvalue of Future Pain. PLOS Computational Biology, 21 November 2013.

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