Previous psychological research has demonstrated that the mere presence of a loved one — a partner, family member or friend — can help reduce one’s subjective experience of physical pain (for instance, during a medical procedure), versus experiencing similar pain while alone. This research has been replicated over the years in various settings and in such a way as to suggest that this indeed might be a causal relationship. That is, the presence of a loved one actually helps reduce our feelings of pain.
What is this same phenomenon could occur without a loved one being present? Would a photo suffice to also help reduce pain?
Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (Master et al., 2009) designed an elegantly simple laboratory experiment to find out. They asked 25 women in long-term relationships to come in and willingly receive painful stimuli (thermal — heat — stimulation) on their left arms which were hidden behind a curtain. The subjects rated the amount of pain they felt on a pain scale under seven different experimental conditions, ranging from viewing a photo of their long-term romantic partner or holding a squeeze ball, to viewing a photo of a chair or holding a stranger’s hand.
The experimenters also measured reaction time — the amount of time it took the subject to register their pain rating after feeling the pain. This was to determine whether it was merely the distraction from pain that reduced the subjective feelings of pain, or whether it was the social support itself from a loved one.
The researchers discovered that simply viewing a love one’s photograph can have a reducing effect on one’s feelings of pain. The researchers explain their findings:
Thus, seeing photographs of loved ones may prime associated mental representations of being loved and supported, which may be sufficient to attenuate pain experience.
The findings suggest that bringing loved ones’ photographs to painful procedures may be beneficial, particularly if those individuals cannot be there.
In fact, because loved ones vary in their ability to provide support, photographs may, in some cases, be more effective than in-person support.
So next time you go in for surgery or some other medical procedure, you might want to consider dumping your partner and bringing only their photo with you instead. A photo appears to help us feel less physical pain during a painful procedure.
And, unlike your partner or family member, a photo can’t be in a bad mood.
Master, S.L., et al. (2009). A Picture’s Worth: Partner Photographs Reduce Experimentally Induced Pain. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02444.x