Have you ever participated in a marathon? As well as exhausting, the experience can be excruciatingly painful. But somehow, knowing you are not the only one feeling the strain makes it more bearable. Now, a new study finds that despite its unpleasantness, sharing painful experiences may actually increase social bonding and encourage cooperation.
The research team, led by Brock Bastian of University of New South Wales in Australia, publish their findings in the journal Psychological Science.
According to Bastian, the findings may shed light on why strong friendships develop among soldiers or others who have shared painful experiences. Furthermore, they say it could provide insight into many worldwide social, religious and sexual practices that involve elements of pain.
For their study, Bastian and researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia conducted a series of experiments to determine how pain influences social bonding.
The first experiment involved 54 students who were divided into small groups. Some of the students were asked to put one hand in a painfully cold bucket of water and locate metal balls from the bottom. Others were asked to complete the same task, but with a bucket of water at room temperature.
In another task, some students were asked to perform a typically painful upright wall squat, while others were asked to perform a painless task – to balance on one leg, with the option of switching legs.
The students were then asked to rate a set of statements – such as “I feel a part of this group of participants” and “I feel a sense of loyalty of the other participants” – in order for the team to gauge how the tasks influenced bonding within groups.
Although there were no differences in positive and negative emotions between the groups who experienced pain and those who did not, the researchers found that those who performed the painful tasks had higher levels of bonding.
In another experiment, a different set of students were again divided into groups. Some were required to eat a very spicy Bird’s Eye chili pepper to induce discomfort, while others were required to eat a non-spicy food.
They then played a game. Each individual was asked to a choose a number between one and seven. They were told that if everyone in the group chose seven, they would win a higher amount of money, but if everyone chose different numbers, those who selected the lowest numbers would win more money.
The team found that the individuals in the groups who performed the painful tasks chose higher numbers, suggesting that these individuals were more motivated to work as a group, even if it meant winning less money for themselves.
The researchers note that the study participants were picked at random, therefore the only thing they had in common with the other participants was the shared tasks.
“Our findings show that pain is a particularly powerful ingredient in producing bonding and cooperation between those who share painful experiences,” Bastian comments, adding that such painful experiences may be common in our day-to-day lives.
“Our findings, therefore, may have implications for understanding social processes apparent in settings such as boot camp-style physical training programs, team sports, executive challenges, and other physically challenging experiences shared with others. Sharing a spicy meal with friends may even have positive social consequences!”
Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study claiming that feelings of social pain or empathy for others can cause physical pain in ourselves.