Misery Loves Company: Shared Pain Encourages Cooperation

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Does pain promote bonding? Image by amairgen.

“Misery loves company.”  You’ve heard the phrase.  Does anything good come from shared pain?

Researcher Dr. Brock Bastian and colleagues from the University of New South Wales and  the University of Queensland in Australia found a positive aspect to sharing negative experiences with others. People who share pain are more likely to cooperate.

The Research on Pain, Bonding and Cooperation

Researchers conducted three small-scale experiments to investigate the effect of shared pain.  In the first experiment, 54  college students were asked to complete tasks that were either somewhat painful, or neutral, and then rate their level of bonding.

Participants who had put their hands in ice-cold water to collect objects or who squatted with their backs at a 90 degree angle were more likely to report bonding with their fellow subjects than students who put their hands in room temperature water, or who were allowed to stand in less stressful poses.

The researchers reported, “participants in the pain condition reported higher bonding.

In the second of the three experiments, researchers sought to find out if shared pain increased cooperation among strangers.  62 college students either experienced the “pain condition” described above, or a neutral condition, and then played an economic game where certain number choices would reward the entire group, and other number choices would reward only the one choosing the number.

Analysis of the choice of those who shared pain “revealed a medium- to large-sized effect of condition on cooperation.

In the third study, researchers attempted to further isolate the pain experience.  Rather than completing a task such as collecting items in ice water, students ate either a hot chili pepper or a hard candy.  Again, analysis revealed  a “medium-sized effect of pain on cooperation.” 

The results were combined for further analysis.   As the authors state “we collapsed the data across the experiments for a more powerful test of our key research question.

In an exclusive interview with Dr. Brock Bastian, he explained the first study, while important for establishing pain influenced bonding, was different than the second and third studies whose results could be combined, because  studies two and three “focused on the same measure of cooperation-the first used a different dependent variable.

Combined, the research Gender and group size did not influence the outcome.

Fire-walking may promote cooperation. Image by muvuca.

The Missing Mechanism and the Implications of the Effect of Pain on Bonding and Cooperation

Bastain and team admit “although we did not empirically demonstrate a mechanism for the effects we observed, our design did allow us to rule out alternative explanations, showing that merely sharing painful experiences with other people promotes cooperation.”

When asked by Decoded Science if the mechanism behind shared pain promoting social glue might be further investigated by neuroscience, he responded “it is not about neuroscience-to be honest I am not sure it would be possible to easily directly measure the mechanism that we propose, but it would have strengthened our case.”

Whatever mechanism is behind the finding that shared pain yields social bonding, it is one that is useful in a variety of uses from business to religion.

This paper stated their findings support the idea that “dysphoric ritualspromote cooperation.  When Decoded Science asked Dr. Bastain for an example, he cited “Fire-walking,” referring to retreats where high-level executives are encouraged to walk on fire to promote team building.  Another example provided by Bastain was the “Kavadi Festival,” an Indian religious festival where participants carry heavy baskets and may also pierce themselves.

In addition to these situations, you can probably think of other times where people share discomfort and emerge with close bonds. Many religious groups observe periods of ritual fasting, for example.

Need Some Cooperation? Misery Loves Company

The next time you need a bit of cooperation at home or work, break out the chili peppers or try group calisthenics.  A little misery loves company, and companies might come to love dysphoric rituals. Fire-walking, anyone?

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