The Sting of Intentional Pain

When someone steps on your toe on purpose, it seems to hurt more than when the person does the same thing unintentionally. The physical parameters of the harm may not differ—your toe is flattened in both cases—but the psychological experience of pain is changed nonetheless. Intentional harms are premeditated by another person and have the specific purpose of causing pain. In a sense, intended harms are events initiated by one mind to communicate meaning (malice) to another, and this could shape the recipient’s experience. This study examined whether self-reported pain is indeed higher when the events producing the pain are understood as intentionally (as opposed to unintentionally) caused by another person. Although pain was traditionally conceived to be solely physical in nature (Aydede, 2005), its experience varies substantially with psychological context. The placebo analgesia effect, for example, is the reduction of pain without a change in physical stimulation when context, expectations, or sugar pills challenge the interpretation of a sensation as painful (e.g., Fields, 2008). The nocebo effect, in turn, is the experience of pain without any physical stimulation—as when participants report headaches when told that a (nonexistent) electric current is passing through their heads (Schweiger & Parducci, 1981). These variations in pain experience seem to depend on the meaning of the stimulus: A sugar pill is meant to decrease pain, whereas electric current is meant to increase pain. In an interpersonal context, the meaning of an action is derived from the would complete. perceiver’s perceptions of the actor’s intention (Clark, 1996).
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