The next time you want to find out how someone’s likely to react to the latest political bombshell, try giving them a pinch. On the surface, it’s a surefire way to start an argument, but University of Toronto researchers believe pain sensitivity may actually be able to tell us something about an individual’s political beliefs.
New evidence published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that people with higher pain sensitivity are more likely to cross the political divide and empathise with the views of the opposition.
Scientists at the University’s psychology department have spent their time pinching people to gauge what impact perceived pain levels have on our understanding of the world. They say they were shocked by the results.
“We were honestly not expecting to see this kind of cross-aisle effects of pain sensitivity,” said lead researcher Professor Spike Lee who says he concocted the idea while in the dentist’s chair.
“When we first found it, we thought it might be a fluke. That’s why we ran a replication study. We found it again. We ran extended replications and follow-up studies. We kept finding it.”
Lee and his research colleague, psychology graduate student Cecilia Ma, ran seven different studies with more than 7,000 US participants to find out just what was going on. In research dating back years, they say they were even able to determine which political candidate someone would be more likely to vote for based on their response to being pinched.
Democrat voters with increased sensitivity to pain proved to be more likely to vote for Donald Trump in the 2020 US Presidential Election while similarly disposed Republicans were more likely to vote for Joe Biden.
The team say that their findings are not as surprising as they might first appear given that the experience of pain — both physical and psychological — is “almost the same” to your brain. Humans can also experience second-hand pain by watching other people’s distress or perceiving injustice. The theory is that those who are more sensitive to physical pain are also more likely to sympathise with the emotional pain in their political opponents.
So, aside from being quicker to say ‘Ow!’, does the study also suggest that pain-sensitive people might also be confused about their own political beliefs? Lee cautions that it’s a bit more complex than that.
“It’s not that their profile of moral sensitivities shifts from ‘only supporting our side’ to ‘only supporting the other side’,” he said.
“Instead, they tend to be more supportive of both sides’ views.”
The research may provide some link between the fact that women are more empathetic than men and that they also experience pain more acutely. Although it’s not entirely clear cut, the vast majority of evidence shows that women are broadly more sensitive to pain thanks to greater nerve density. At the same time, there is a wealth of evidence showing that they are also more likely to empathise with others, perhaps owing to this increased perception of pain.
While the latest study doesn’t offer any clear path for finding more middle ground in our increasingly polarised world, it does shed light on a previously unexplored influence on our moral and political views, the researchers state.
Far from being purely rational, most people’s views “are infused with moral feelings, with emotional reactions to what’s right and wrong,” Lee explained.
“The better we understand the basis of a person’s moral feelings, the better we can explain and predict their political views.”