What’s worse: physical pain or social pain?

Most of us fear a broken arm far more than a moment of embarrassment or rejection.

In his book, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, David Brock makes an excellent point: We feel physical pain once and then it ends. We are able to feel relive emotional pain all over again years later. That hurt can stay with us much longer, maybe never abating.

People who experience events like this (say, events like this (say, being unfairly treated at work or being attacked falsely by a rival in the media) find that the pain from these events can take years to recover from. A study of social pain in 2008 found that social pain comes back when you think about it again, whereas physical pain doesn’t. Giving someone a thump on the arm as punishment for a mistake may, in theory at least, be a “kinder” punishment than attacking their ideas in public.

The study is here:

Recent discoveries suggest that social pain is as real and intense as physical pain, and that the social-pain system may have piggybacked on the brain structure that had evolved earlier for physical pain. The present study examined an important distinction between social and physical pain: Individuals can relive and reexperience social pain more easily and more intensely than physical pain. Studies 1 and 2 showed that people reported higher levels of pain after reliving a past socially painful event than after reliving a past physically painful event. Studies 3 and 4 found, in addition, that people performed worse on cognitively demanding tasks after they relived social rather than physical pain. Implications for research on social pain and theories about social pain are discussed.

Source: “When hurt will not heal: exploring the capacity to relive social and physical pain.” from Psychol Sci. 2008 Aug;19(8):789-95.

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