Pain Influenced by Memory of Discomfort

People form memories about unpleasant experiences and modify them if they expect to undergo the same experience again in the future. It is assumed that the memory of a past experience becomes less harsh as time passes. This current study found results contrary to this popular assumption. Three main measures of dislike–irritation, annoyance and boredom–were correlated and grouped into one measure of remembered aversion. Bracing is a psychological mechanism by which people prepare themselves to undergo unpleasant or aversive experiences again in the future.

People generally wish to be involved in pleasant experiences. However, sometimes, they continue to participate in aversive experiences because of the perceived benefits. For instance, people may suffer an irritating task because their job requires it, or for perceived rewards. Generally, people tend to focus on the positive while ignoring the negative experience. Hence, it is assumed that perception of unpleasantness, or aversion to a task, does not increase with the anticipation of repeating the experience. This study was aimed at finding whether the assumption was true. There were seven different experiments in which the subjects underwent aversive stimuli/experiences.

* In the first experiment, all participants first listened to an irritating sound (the noise of a vacuum cleaner) for some time. Afterward, some were informed that they would be listening to more of the same noise later. All the subjects rated their feeling of irritation on a scale from 1 to 9 based on increasing discomfort (“Not at all Uncomfortable” (1) to “Extremely Uncomfortable” (9).
* In study 2, the participants performed a task, like moving a circle appearing on the computer screen from one end to other repeatedly. After the task, some of the participants were told that they would have to perform the task again. They again rated their feeling on a scale of 1 to 9, based on increasing aversion. Studies 3 to 6 were variations of the methods used in study 2.
* The seventh study included women who had regular menstrual cycles. They first mentioned the number of days left until the next period. Next, they specified how painful and the average time of their last period on two 9-point scales varying from “Not at all Painful” (1) to “Extremely Painful” (9).

* The results “demonstrate that people’s memory for a bad experience becomes more negative when they anticipate” undergoing that experience again in the future.
* Study 1 found that participants who had just listened to a vacuum cleaner for 10 minutes remember that experience as more irritating when they were told that they would have to listen to the noise again.
* Studies 2 through 6 found that participants who had completed a boring task remember that experience as more aversive when they anticipate repetitions of the same task.
* Study 7 showed that women remember their last menstrual period as more painful when their next period is due.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The study indicates that people are likely to remember their unpleasant experiences as more aversive if they are expected to undergo the same experience again. But this study does not present any proof that remembering an event as more disagreeable means that people develop more pessimistic expectations for repeat experiences. Further research should examine whether bracing for the worst actually helps curb people’s distress during the real event.

Our memories influence our expectations and those expectations influence our experiences; but little is known about whether our expectations influence our memories and, if so, how. This study found that people remember an unpleasant experience as more harsh when they expect to have the same experience again. This study shows that “people alter their memory for their past appraisals–not to create the illusion of consistency, but rather to steel themselves against future harm,” conclude the authors. Psychological mechanisms like bracing are very helpful. It is possible that bracing for the aversive experiences may limit people’s actual distress during the repeat experience. The study also discovered that bracing can be switched off in two different ways.

For More Information:
The Pain Was Greater If It Will Happen Again: The Effect of Anticipation on Retrospective Discomfort
Publication Journal: Journal of Experimental Psychology, February 2011
By Jeff Galak; Tom Meyvis; Carnegie Mellon University, and New York University

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