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Don’t try this at home: pain really does help ease guilt, scientists find

March 8, 2011
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

In me­di­e­val Eu­rope, some Chris­tians used to whip them­selves to re­pent for their sins. To­day, some Shi­ite Mus­lims slash them­selves to wash away their sins and to mourn the kill­ing cen­tu­ries ago of their lead­er Hus­sein bin Ali.

But can self-in­flict­ed pain really al­le­vi­ate guilt? 

While cer­tainly not rec­om­mend­ing the prac­tice—most people would agree there are far bet­ter ways to make am­ends—sci­en­tists have found that the an­swer seems to be yes.

Chris­tians are depicted whip­ping them­selves in a me­di­e­val wood­cut. The prac­tice be­came pop­u­lar short­ly af­ter the Black Death rav­aged Eu­rope in the 1300s.


Psy­cho­log­ist Brock Ba­sti­an of the Uni­vers­ity of Queens­land, Aus­tral­ia and col­leagues re­cruited a group of young men and wom­en, tell­ing them it was for part of a study of men­tal and phys­i­cal acu­ity. Un­der this pre­tense, they asked some of the par­ti­ci­pants to write short es­says about a time when they had os­tra­cized some­one. This mem­o­ry of be­ing un­kind was meant to make them feel guilty. A con­trol, or com­par­i­son, group of vol­un­teers were just asked to write about a rou­tine event in their lives.

Af­ter­ward, the sci­en­tists told some of the vol­un­teers—both “im­moral” ones and con­trols—to stick their hand in­to a buck­et of ice wa­ter and keep it there as long as they could. Oth­ers did the same, only with a sooth­ing buck­et of warm wa­ter. Fi­nal­ly, all the vol­un­teers rat­ed the pain they had just ex­pe­ri­enced—if any—and they com­plet­ed a sur­vey of emo­tion­al state in­clud­ing feel­ings of guilt.

The idea was to see if im­mor­al think­ing caused the vol­un­teers to sub­ject them­selves to more pain, and if this pain did in­deed al­le­vi­ate their re­sult­ing feel­ings of guilt. And that’s ex­actly what the re­search­ers said they found. Those who were “primed” to think of their own un­eth­i­cal na­ture not only kept their hands in the ice bath long­er, they al­so rat­ed the ex­pe­ri­ence as more pain­ful than did con­trols. What’s more, ex­pe­ri­encing pain was found to re­duce these vol­un­teers’ feel­ings of guilt—more than the com­pa­ra­ble but pain­less ex­pe­ri­ence with warm wa­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists, al­though we think of pain as purely phys­i­cal, in fact we im­bue the un­pleas­ant sensa­t­ion with mean­ing. Hu­mans have been so­cial­ized over ages to think of pain in terms of jus­tice. We equate it with pun­ish­ment, and as the ex­pe­ri­men­tal re­sults sug­gest, they said, that the ex­pe­ri­ence has the psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect of re­bal­anc­ing the scales of jus­tice.

The study is pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.


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In medieval Europe, some Christians used to whip themselves to repent for their sins. Today, some Shiite Muslims slash themselves to wash away their sins and to mourn the killing of their seventh-century leader, Hussein. But can self-inflicted pain really alleviate guilt? While certainly not recommending the practice, scientists have found that the answer seems to be yes: self-inflicted pain does achieve that, to some extent. Psychological scientist Brock Bastian of the University of Queensland, Australia and colleagues recruited a group of young men and women, telling them it was for part of a study of mental and physical acuity. Under this pretense, they asked some of the participants to write short essaid about a time when they had ostracized someone. This memory of being unkind was meant to make them feel guilty. A control, or comparison, group of volunteers were just asked to write about a routine event in their lives. Afterward, the scientists told some of the volunteers—both “immoral” ones and controls—to stick their hand into a bucket of ice water and keep it there as long as they could. Others did the same, only with a soothing bucket of warm water. Finally, all the volunteers rated the pain they had just experienced—if any—and they completed an emotional inventory that included feelings of guilt. The idea was to see if immoral thinking caused the volunteers to subject themselves to more pain, and if this pain did indeed alleviate their resulting feelings of guilt. And that’s exactly what the researchers said they found. Those who were “primed” to think of their own unethical nature not only kept their hands in the ice bath longer, they also rated the experience as more painful than did controls. What’s more, experiencing pain did reduce these volunteers’ feelings of guilt—more than the comparable but painless experience with warm water. According to the scientists, although we think of pain as purely physical, in fact we imbue the unpleasant sensation with meaning. Humans have been socialized over ages to think of pain in terms of justice. We equate it with punishment, and as the experimental results suggest, they said, that the experience has the psychological effect of rebalancing the scales of justice. The study is published in the research journal Psychological Science.