A New Study Finds that Intentional Pain Hurts More Than Accidental Pain

By Victoria Powell

For a long time, it has been considered that a person’s mental state can alter their perception of pain. A new report from Harvard University has discovered that a person’s experience of pain is amplified if they consider that pain is caused intentionally by another party.

In a new study, participants who considered that they were receiving electrical shocks intentionally from another person experienced more pain than their cohorts who considered the electrical shocks they were receiving were accidental. Additionally, those who considered that the shocks were unintentional were able to physically accept the pain level more than those who considered the shocks as intentional acts.

The authors of this study have suggested that intentional and unintentional harm cause different pain reactions due to differentiated meaning. Kurt Gray, a graduate in psychology and lead researcher for this project gives the example: “Compare a slap from a friend as she tries to save us from a mosquito versus the same slap from a jilted lover. The first we shrug off instantly, while the second stings our cheek for the rest of the night.”

48 participants took place in this study. The participants were paired with a partner who could either administer an electric shock or an audible tone. Participants who were subjected to the intentional condition received electric shocks when their partners chose the shock option. Under the unintentional condition, participants were shocked when their partners chose the tone option. Under both conditions, the participants were made aware of their partner’s options via a computer display. They were informed of their partner’s choice prior to receiving the shock, this was to insure the electric shock was not more surprising to those under the unintentional condition.

The voltage of the shock was identical under both conditions. Those who participated in the intentional condition rated the shock as being significantly more painful than their counterparts who were under the unintentional condition. Additionally, those in the unintentional condition group reported to becoming more accustomed to the pain and considered it to decrease during the experiment.

The researchers have commented that the findings might have significant relevance to our evolution. When pain occurs as an unintentional act, one considers it to be a “one time” occurrence and believe there is no need to do anything about it. However, when pain is inflicted intentionally, one could consider the events to re-occur and take it as a cue to remove themselves from further harm. It could well be that the brain amplifies the experience of intentional pain to prevent further action and to insure survival.

These findings could have direct impact on understanding why certain negative experiences affect people in different situations. For example, it could unveil why the act of torture is far more painful to people than an unintentional car crash. They suggest that the torture techniques cause far less of a physical reaction to pain than the process of knowing that the torture is intentional. Those who test torture techniques would be far less likely to maintain a continuous reaction to the pain inflicted than those who are routinely tortured as an act of punishment.

Additionally, the perception of unintentional harm in an intended situation might go a long way to explain why people remain with abusive partners. If the injured party considers that their partner did not really mean to harm them, they are likely to consider the pain caused by abuse as far less painful than they would if they realized that the harm was caused intentionally.