The idea that physical pain can alleviate guilt has a long heritage but a new study just published in Psychological Science has produced evidence that helps confirm this long-held belief.
The experiment, led by psychologist Brock Bastian, asked people to recall a time when they had behaved unacceptably and then rate their current level of guilt as they thought back.
The participants were then asked to do a dexterity task with one hand while either keeping their other hand either in a painful bucket of cold water or in a bucket of lukewarm water.
Participants who wrote about an unethical behavior not only held their hands in ice water longer but also rated the experience as more painful than did participants who wrote about an everyday interaction. Critically, experiencing pain reduced people’s feelings of guilt, and the effect of the painful task on ratings of guilt was greater than the effect of a similar but nonpainful task.
Pain has traditionally been understood as purely physical in nature, but it is more accurate to describe it as the intersection of body, mind, and culture. People give meaning to pain, and we argue that people interpret pain within a judicial model of pain as punishment. Our results suggest that the experience of pain has psychological currency in rebalancing the scales of justice—an interpretation of pain that is analogous to notions of retributive justice. Interpreted in this way, pain has the capacity to resolve guilt.
Link to DOI entry for study.