Experiencing physical pain increases empathy towards others

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People who experience physical pain are more likely to exhibit sympathetic moral judgments, according to an October 2015 study.

The pair of studies, published in the Public Library of Science’s journal PLOS One, looked to expand upon previous studies involving pain.

“Although empathy for people in pain has been widely studied…few studies have addressed the role of pain-evoked empathy in moral judgment,” said Qianguo Xiao, corresponding author of the study.

“We predicted that participants who experienced physical pain would be more sympathetic in judging moral dilemmas.”

Study 1

For the first study, the research team recruited 131 undergraduate students at a Chinese university and randomly placed them into groups. The groups either experienced physical pain (submerging a hand into a bucket of ice water for as long as possible) or did not (submerging a hand into lukewarm water).  Next, they took an empathy questionnaire and then answered questions regarding a moral dilemma that either did or did not involve physical pain.

The team found that the groups who experienced physical pain showed higher levels of empathy and were more likely to give a sympathetic judgment for the moral dilemma.

“We found that the pain, empathy, and moral judgments were significantly correlated with one another,” Xiao reported.

Study 2

Because empathy in study 1 was only measured after the infliction of pain, scientists could not guarantee that the results were due specifically to an increase in empathy.

For the second study, the team recruited 120 undergraduate students. This time, the participants took an empathy questionnaire both before and after the infliction of physical pain.

The results were as expected: physical pain did increase empathy, and it also made participants more likely to judge the moral dilemma sympathetically.

“Results from our two studies indicated that personal pain may facilitate people’s understanding of another individual’s pain or suffering,” said Xiao.

The findings may indicate an important point about pain and humanity in general.

“Our findings provide support for the view that pain can serve a positive psychosocial function,” Xiao said.