Faced with inevitable pain, most people choose to "get it out of
the way" as soon as possible, according to research published this week in
PLOS Computational Biology.
In the study, which was conducted from the Institute for Global Health
Innovation, Imperial College London, and the Welcome Trust Centre for
Neuroimaging, University College London, participants chose between real
painful stimuli in the form of electric shocks, and imagined painful dental
appointments occurring at different times in the future.
Whilst most people chose to hasten the experience of pain, and would
even accept more severe pain to avoid having to wait for it, a smaller
proportion preferred to "put it off" into the future.
The anticipation of pain is a major source of misery. People who suffer
from long-standing painful conditions report that the dread of worsening future
pain can be more disabling than the pain itself. The general phenomenon is
typically referred to as 'negative time preference'.
Reducing the dread
The research team, led by Dr Giles Story, sought to better understand
the fundamental processes by which people anticipate pain, with the hope of
providing new insight into these conditions.
The researchers propose that the dread of pain increases as the
predicted time of pain approaches.
They demonstrate that if people focus only on the approaching pain
itself, they will choose to defer pain into the future if possible, to reduce
their immediate dread.
By contrast, if people also take into account the dread they may
experience in waiting for a painful event, the prospective unpleasantness of a
prolonged period of dread may even exceed the unpleasantness of the pain
The researchers show that, in such cases, the prospect of pain becomes
more unpleasant the more the pain is delayed, and people will therefore choose
to expedite unavoidable pain.
The authors conclude that, "Further research is required to
uncover the constitutive mechanisms of dread". For clinicians and health
policy makers, a greater understanding of these mechanisms could inform the way
in which potentially painful investigations and treatments are practised.