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J Pain. 2018 Mar;19(3):291-300. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2017.11.003. Epub 2017 Nov 21.

The Influence of Social Threat on Pain, Aggression, and Empathy in Women.

Author information

1
Research Group of Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium. Electronic address: Kai.Karos@kuleuven.be.
2
Research Group of Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium; Center for Excellence on Generalization Research in Health and Psychopathology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium.
3
Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium.
4
Research Group of Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium; Center for Excellence on Generalization Research in Health and Psychopathology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium; Department of Clinical Psychological Sciences, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands.

Abstract

Only one published study has investigated the effect of a threatening social context on the perception and expression of pain, showing that social threat leads to increased pain reports but reduced nonverbal pain expression. The current study aimed to replicate and extend these findings to further explore the effects of a threatening social context. Healthy, female participants (N = 71) received 10 electrocutaneous stimuli delivered by a confederate. They were led to believe that the confederate was requested to administer 10 painful stimuli (control group) or that the confederate deliberately chose to deliver 10 painful stimuli when given the choice to deliver between 1 to 10 painful stimuli (social threat group). Self-reported pain intensity, unpleasantness, threat value of pain, and painful facial expression were assessed. Additionally, empathy and aggression toward the confederate were investigated. Social threat did not affect painful facial expression or self-reported pain intensity, but led to increased aggression toward the confederate. Moreover, perceived social threat predicted the threat value of pain and reduced empathy toward the confederate. We were not able to replicate the previously reported dissociation between pain reports and pain expression as a result of social threat. However, social threat was associated with an increased threat value of pain, increased aggression, and reduced empathy.

PERSPECTIVE:

A threatening social context affects how threatening pain is perceived and has interpersonal consequences such as increased aggression and reduced empathy, thereby creating a double burden on the individual suffering from pain.

KEYWORDS:

Social threat; aggression; communication; empathy; pain expression; retribution; self-report

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