The Guilt-Reducing Effect of Pain

Many people are known to practice ritual pain and self-inflicted pain aimed at achieving purification of soul and psyche. However, no concrete studies have been performed to assess the benefits of pain on the psyche. Volunteers in this study were subjected to physical pain. It was noted that volunteers who recalled a wrong behavior or act tended to sustain the painful condition longer and felt it was more painful than those who had a clearer conscience.

History and religion cite stories of purification of the soul by inflicting pain on your body. Some extreme Catholics practice this ritual called mortification of the flesh. Guilt has often led a person to go in for this painful purifying experience. It has been speculated that sustaining a painful impulse helps you ease yourself of the regret and guilt associated with a wrongdoing. However, there have been no scientific studies that explore the dynamics of pain and guilt. This study looked at reasons why a guilt-ridden person sought pain. It also attempted to find if experiencing such inflicted pain helps to ease the regret and guilt induced by the immoral or unethical act.

* The study included 62 adults who volunteered to participate in the study for money. The actual nature and design of the study was not revealed to them.
* They were divided into three groups – one that was subjected to painful stimulii, one that did not suffer the pain and a control group. The first two groups had to remember an incident when they behaved immorally and the third group had to remember a daily life incident. Questionnaires were used to measure the level of guilt among all the participants.
* Thereafter, the pain group had to immerse one hand in ice-cold water as long as they could tolerate. The no-pain group was subjected to immerse one hand in a bucket of warm water. Questionnaires were again used to test their guilt.

* Results showed that volunteers who had written about an immoral act found the ice-water task more painful compared to those who had written about a mundane daily life incident.
* The experience of guilt was found to be high in participants of pain and no-pain groups compared to control group. After the ice-cold water and warm water immersion experiment, the guilt was found to be highest in the no-pain group.
* Magnitude of change or reduction in guilt was more than twice as large in the pain stimulus group compared to the no-pain group.

Next steps/Shortcomings
Authors suggest that when pain is given a reason — in this case viewed as punishment, it may be perceived to be reduced or even accepted as deserved. There are very few studies that explain this theory. In spite of positive findings in this study, authors suggest further research to establish the hypothesis of “when pain is given a reason” in greater detail.

This study proves that a reminiscence of an immoral or unethical act can often motivate a person to seek pain. It also shows that when people experience pain, it mitigates their guilt to a great extent.  Also, a guilt-ridden person experiences the pain to a greater extent than one without guilt. Traditions suggest that pain as a physical phenomenon has deeper roots in the psyche.  It is often viewed as a mode of atonement and method of deliverance of justice. Physical pain is seen as penalty that eliminates sin. It also conveys to others that having taken this penalty, the sufferer may be exempted from further punishment. The endurance of pain also establishes the moral credibility of the sufferer, showing him in a positive light.  Pain can thus help in diminishing the feelings of guilt.

For More Information:
Cleansing the Soul by Hurting the Flesh: The Guilt-Reducing Effect of Pain
Publication Journal: Psychological Science, January 2011
By Brock Bastian; Jolanda Jetten; University of Queensland, Australia, and University of Exeter

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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