People Who Feel Less Pain Are Also Less Willing to Help Others

An experimental study using placebo painkillers shows for the first time a direct link between one's own perception of pain, empathy and willingness to help others
By: University of Vienna
VIENNA - Sept. 28, 2022 - PRLog -- A reduced ability to feel pain in one's own body leads to a reduced willingness to help others who feel pain. This result of a study published in Psychological Science by cognitive psychologists at the University of Vienna led by Claus Lamm and Helena Hartmann points beyond the individual effects of pain medication to its social costs.

It has been known for a few years that there is a connection between the ability to feel pain in one's own body and empathy for the pain of other people. This conclusion was reached in multiple experiments in which subjects were given placebo painkillers (i.e., pills without a pharmacological agent), which affected both their emotions and corresponding brain activity. It is also known that people's ability to empathize is related to how helpful they are. However, no research has yet been done to determine whether reducing one's sensitivity to pain actually leads to a lower willingness to help.

Social neuroscientist Helena Hartmann and her three co-authors from the University of Vienna have now published the results of an experimental study that investigated this question in the journal Psychological Science. 90 participants were confronted with a situation in which they believed another person was being administered varying amounts of painful electrical stimuli. However, the participants had the opportunity to reduce the supposed amount of these stimulations by exerting physical effort – squeezing a hand dynamometer measuring their force. Before they made their choices, however, half of the participants received a supposed painkiller – a so-called deceptive placebo – while the other half did not. In fact, the belief that one has taken a pain-reducing medication already measurably reduces one's own sensitivity to pain. Indeed, the experiment showed that the group that had received the placebo painkiller was less often willing to reduce the number of electric shocks through own physical effort than the group that did not receive placebos.

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