Individuals who are more sensitive to physical pain are more likely to hold moral and political views that are typically associated with their ideological opponents, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The findings provide evidence that pain sensitivity influences the willingness to consider and support ideas from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.
With increasing political polarization and sectarianism, the researchers sought to delve into the underlying factors that might influence individuals’ inclination to support views that are contrary to their own ideological beliefs. One area that had not been explored was sensitivity to physical pain.
“I’m very sensitive to physical pain,” said study author Spike W. S. Lee, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Mind and Body Lab. “Every time I go to the dentist, I request freezing before they do even the most regular dental cleaning. One time, after the freezing procedure, I was sitting there thinking, ‘This does feel much better. I wonder what having no sensitivity to physical pain would do to people’s moral compass. And their political attitudes. Or maybe having higher vs. lower sensitivity, how would it matter for morality and politics?’ And that’s how the research idea was born.”
The new research was partially based on Moral Foundation Theory, a psychological framework developed by social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, among others, to explain and understand the diverse moral values and beliefs held by individuals across cultures. The theory suggests that human morality is not solely based on a single set of moral principles but is instead built upon five key moral dimensions, or “foundations,” that shape people’s moral judgments and behaviors.
The first foundation, care/harm, focuses on compassion and protecting the well-being of others. Fairness/cheating emphasizes justice and equality. Loyalty/betrayal pertains to group identity and cooperation. Authority/subversion centers on respect for authority and societal order. Sanctity/degradation involves the concepts of purity and sacredness.
The researchers conducted a series of studies involving 7,360 participants from the United States. They recruited participants from online platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk and Prolific to ensure diversity in demographic backgrounds and political orientations.
Lee and his colleagues collected data through surveys that included measures related to moral foundations, political attitudes, voting preferences, support for political figures, and attitudes toward contentious political issues. Participants also completed the Pain Sensitivity Questionnaire (PSQ), which measured their sensitivity to physical pain stimuli.
In their first three studies, the researchers observed that higher pain sensitivity predicted greater endorsement of moral foundations typically endorsed by one’s ideological opponent. More specifically, among liberals, higher pain sensitivity led to a stronger endorsement of conservative moral foundations such as loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Among conservatives, higher pain sensitivity predicted a stronger endorsement of liberal moral foundations like care/harm and fairness/cheating.
In their next two studies, the researchers found that higher pain sensitivity predicted stronger inclinations to support political views and voting preferences typically exhibited by one’s ideological opponent. Among liberals with higher pain sensitivity, there was a higher likelihood of voting for Republican candidates like Trump, more conservative attitudes toward political issues, and stronger support for leading Republican politicians. Among conservatives with higher pain sensitivity, there was a higher likelihood of voting for Democratic candidates like Biden, more liberal attitudes toward political issues, and stronger support for leading Democratic politicians.
In a subsequent study, Lee and his colleagues found that individuals with higher pain sensitivity tended to perceive greater harm in situations that involved moral violations and attitudinal disagreements. However, this effect was not uniform across different moral foundations. Instead, it depended on an individual’s ideological orientation (liberal or conservative).
Among liberals with higher pain sensitivity, the perception of harm was stronger for moral foundations that are typically more emphasized by conservatives, such as loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Conversely, among conservatives with higher pain sensitivity, the perception of harm was stronger for moral foundations that are typically more emphasized by liberals, such as care/harm and fairness/cheating.
In their final study, the researchers discovered that people’s general intuitions about pain sensitivity were often incorrect, with participants expecting that individuals with higher pain sensitivity would be more supportive of political figures and attitudes endorsed by their ideological allies. However, the actual effects of pain sensitivity were opposite to these intuitions.
“Whether you’re liberal or conservative, how pain-sensitive you are may predict some of your moral and political views. What we found was that higher sensitivity to physical pain predicts greater support for moral and political views typically endorsed by one’s ideological opponent,” Lee told PsyPost.
“Specifically, among liberal Americans, the more pain-sensitive they are, the more inclined they are to hold conservative moral views, to support conservative politicians, to favor Trump in the 2020 election, to have more conservative attitudes toward contentious political issues. Conservatives show the mirroring pattern.”
“These ‘cross-aisle’ effects of pain sensitivity are robust and different from people’s intuitions. Indeed, they are often diametrically opposite to people’s intuitions. People expect more pain-sensitive individuals to show greater support for the moral and political views of their ideological allies. But what we consistently find is that more pain-sensitive individuals show greater support for the moral and political views of their ideological opponents.”
Importantly, the observed effects were not simply a result of more pain-sensitive individuals occupying a more moderate ideological position. Among liberals, higher pain sensitivity did not correlate with rating oneself as less liberal. Among conservatives, higher pain sensitivity was generally associated with rating oneself as slightly more conservative, but not less.
In other words, while pain sensitivity consistently predicted the adoption of views from the opposite political side, it did not predict a shift towards a more moderate self-identification on the ideological spectrum.
The study provides valuable insights into the relationship between pain sensitivity and moral/political views, but it also has limitations to be considered. Firstly, the research relied heavily on self-report measures, which might be subject to biases, social desirability, and potential inaccuracies in participants’ responses. The reliance on cross-sectional data also limits the ability to establish causality or infer temporal relationships between pain sensitivity and ideological views. Additionally, the study mainly focused on participants from the United States.
“From our correlational findings, it’s clear that pain sensitivity robustly predicts cross-aisle moral and political views,” Lee explained. “But in the absence of experimental evidence, it’s unclear whether pain sensitivity causes these views. Also, we conducted our studies during a highly polarized period in the U.S. (May 2019 to October 2021). Whether the cross-aisle effects of pain sensitivity generalize to other time periods and other populations remains to be seen.”
Despite these limitations, the study offers valuable insights into the potential role of pain sensitivity in shaping ideological differences, inviting further research to explore the topic more comprehensively.
The study, “Pain Sensitivity Predicts Support for Moral and Political Views Across the Aisle“, was authored by Spike W. S. Lee and Cecilia Ma.