Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hurt the flesh, cleanse the soul....

Here are some summary, slightly edited, clips from an interesting study by Bastian et al. (performed on the usual batch of college undergraduates, paid $10 for their participation in the study):
Pain purifies. History is replete with examples of ritualized or self-inflicted pain aimed at achieving purification...When reminded of an immoral deed, people are motivated to experience physical pain. Student participants in the study who wrote about an unethical behavior not only held their hands in ice water longer but also rated the experience as more painful than did participants who wrote about an everyday interaction. Critically, experiencing pain reduced people’s feelings of guilt, and the effect of the painful task on ratings of guilt was greater than the effect of a similar but nonpainful task.

Pain has traditionally been understood as purely physical in nature, but it is more accurate to describe it as the intersection of body, mind, and culture. People give meaning to pain, and we argue that people interpret pain within a judicial model of pain as punishment. Our results suggest that the experience of pain has psychological currency in rebalancing the scales of justice—an interpretation of pain that is analogous to notions of retributive justice. Interpreted in this way, pain has the capacity to resolve guilt.

People are socialized to understand pain within this judicial framework. Physical pain is employed as a penalty (e.g., spanking children for misbehavior), and unexplained pain is often understood as punishment from God. The judicial model is explicit in the Latin word for pain, poena, which means “to pay the penalty.” Understood this way, pain may be perceived as repayment for sin in three ways. First, pain is the embodiment of atonement. Just as physical cleansing washes away sin, physical pain is experienced as a penalty, and paying that penalty reestablishes moral purity. Second, subjecting oneself to pain communicates remorse to others (including God) and signals that one has paid for one’s sins, and this removes the threat of external punishment. Third, tolerating the punishment of pain is a test of one’s virtue, reaffirming one’s positive identity to oneself and others.

Previous work has demonstrated that giving meaning to pain affects people’s management of that pain. By introducing the judicial model of pain, we emphasize that giving meaning to pain can also affect other psychological processes. Although additional research is needed, our findings demonstrate that experiencing pain as a penalty can cause people to feel that their guilt is resolved and their soul cleansed.

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