If you were told that you were tougher and more resilient to pain than the person next to you, would it actually affect how you feel pain? A new study says yes — your expectations of how you will react to pain have a direct effect on your actual perception of pain.
It is well-documented that people’s beliefs and expectations can have a lot of power over their physical bodies. One example of this is the placebo effect: a patient believes she is taking a powerful drug — even though it is only a sugar pill — and ends up feeling better and perhaps even healing herself.
“The placebo effect often works quite well when treating pain and depression,” said Dr. Katharina Schwarz from the Institute of Psychology at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany.
The mere expectation of getting a drug can alleviate symptoms and make you feel better. “And those are not just the patient’s subjective sensations, it can actually be measured physiologically,” she said.
In her recent work, Schwarz has been studying how a person’s expectations can influence perception and behavior. Pain was a central theme of her doctoral thesis at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in 2015.
In that study, she found that if men were told they were more or less sensitive to pain than women, they actually perceived pain differently, according to their beliefs.
For the study, participants were administered different heat stimuli through a band on their forearm. They were asked to rate the pain they felt on a scale from “no pain” to “unbearable.”
On the next day of the experiment, participants read a leaflet that casually informed the men that they were more or less sensitive to pain than women. Both sets of information were backed by evolutionary psychology.
One study group was told that men can endure pain particularly well given their ancient role as hunters, for example. The other group read that women had a higher pain threshold because they have to endure the pain of childbirth.
The pain experiment was repeated. Now, the participants who thought that men were less sensitive rated the pain as being much less intense than on the previous day. Interestingly, however, the men who had learned that women have a higher pain tolerance rated the pain as more intense.
Schwarz hopes that her work can help bring together the many branches of science that study people’s expectations and their effects.
“Neurosciences, psychology, and educational science all study expectations and their impacts. But the individual disciplines hardly exchange their knowledge and I would like to change that,” writes Schwarz in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
“I want to increase the awareness, especially of students, for these mechanisms and in particular for the ones that have a negative impact on people.”
Schwarz believes the findings have practical significance for psychological research as well.
“Scientists, too, have certain expectations in their work. If they incorporate these expectations into the test design and influence test participants accordingly — albeit entirely in good faith — results can be distorted.”
Schwarz wants to expand her research and focus on non-explicit expectation processes, too. These are expectations people have but are not consciously aware of.
Source: University of Wurzburg