Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The past hurts worse when it will return

It is common to say that time heals all wounds.  And generally, it does.  Painful episodes from your life become less painful over time.  It is just harder to remember the degree of discomfort you felt in the past either from a physical injury or from an emotionally difficult time. 

There is good reason for pain to fade over time.  Even though an event may have been painful, it does not make sense for us to relive that pain again repeatedly in the future.  Pain tends to focus your attention on the painful item, and it wouldn’t be healthy to be totally focused on that past pain.

A study by Jeff Galak and Tom Meyvis in the February, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that it is useful to remember the pain of a past event when that even may occur again in the future.  They suggest that when people are bracing themselves for a new situation, they may remember the pain of a past event as more severe.

In two preliminary studies they had participants either listen to an annoying noise or perform a really boring task.  After a break, they had people rate how irritating it was to experience the noise or do the task.  Some people thought that the noise or task was done, while others thought that they would have to experience it again later in the session.  Those people who thought the task was over rated the experience as less unpleasant than those who thought they would be experiencing it again.

It is not just laboratory tasks that work this way.  In a field study, the experimenters asked women to rate the amount of pain they experience when menstruating.  They found that women who had just finished their period rated their pain as higher than those who were in the middle of their cycle.  So, the remembered pain goes down over time.  But, those women who were just about to have their next period rated their menstrual pain as higher than those women in the middle of their cycle.  That is, as they braced themselves for their next period, women recalled higher levels of pain.

What makes this happen?

The authors of this study suggest that people are actively bracing themselves for the pain of a new situation.  To demonstrate that this process requires effort, participants did a boring task.  As before, some thought that the task was done, while others thought they would have to do more of it.  After doing the initial boring task, participants saw pairs of faces and had to judge which was more attractive.  In the easy task, the faces differed quite a bit in attractiveness.  In the hard task, the face pairs were all quite close in attractiveness, so people had to put a lot of effort into their judgments.  The idea here was that making hard judgments might make it difficult for people to brace themselves for the continuation of the boring task later.  

In this study, people who did the easy rating task showed the same results as before.  They remembered the boring task as more unpleasant when they thought they were going to have to do it again than if they thought it was over.  Those who did the hard task, though, did not show this difference.  In this case, both those people who thought they would be doing the boring task again and those who thought it was over remembered it as equally unpleasant (and about as unpleasant as those in the easy judgment condition who thought the task was over). 

So it seems to take some mental effort to brace yourself for the future.

What does this mean for you?

We often use emotions to help us make decisions.  We tend to approach situations that feel pleasant for us and to avoid situations that feel unpleasant.  It is certainly useful for us to minimize the remembered pain of the past when those events are over.  But, it is quite helpful that we can remember the pain more accurately when that pain can provide information to assist in an upcoming decision.  So, these results suggest that the cognitive system is sensibly designed to provide you with information about past pain primarily when it will be useful for you to have it.