Summary: Research reveals an unusual correlation between pain sensitivity and political openness. Pain-sensitive individuals tend to endorse values and show support for politicians typically associated with the opposing political camp.
Through extensive studies involving over 7,000 participants, it was found that liberals with high pain sensitivity were more likely to vote for Trump, while pain-sensitive conservatives showed a tendency to support Biden.
This suggests that our moral and political orientations may be influenced by our physical experiences of pain.
The study involved seven experiments with more than 7,000 U.S. participants to explore the link between pain sensitivity and political views.
Pain-sensitive liberals leaned towards conservative values, while conservatives did the opposite, with some even showing a likelihood to cross-vote in the 2020 election.
This research indicates that moral and political stances may be significantly influenced by physical pain sensitivity.
Source: University of Toronto
The next time your friend displays remarkable openness to their opposite political camp’s ideas, you might try pinching them.
Okay, we don’t really recommend that. But new evidence shows that people with increased sensitivity to pain are also more likely to endorse values more common to people of their opposite political persuasion. It doesn’t stop there.
They also show stronger support for the other camp’s politicians, and, get this— more likely to vote for Donald Trump in 2020 if they are liberal, or Joe Biden if they are conservative.
Even lead researcher Spike Lee, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who is cross appointed to the University’s Department of Psychology, was pinching himself at the revelations.
“We were honestly not expecting to see this kind of cross-aisle effects of pain sensitivity,” said Prof. Lee, who started thinking about the research idea while enjoying the oral freezing experience in his 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.”
The connection is perhaps not so surprising considering that we experience pain—whether it’s the physical pain of stubbing our toe or the social pain of getting bulldozed in a political argument—in a similar part of the brain. We can also experience pain vicariously by witnessing other people’s distress or perceiving a social injustice.
Prof. Lee and his research colleague, psychology graduate student Cecilia Ma, ran seven different studies with more than 7,000 U.S. participants to test competing theories of what pain sensitivity does to our perceptions of moral and political threats—does it heighten them across the board, only affect threats to the sensibilities we personally hold dear, or make us more sensitive to somebody else’s?
To gauge pain sensitivity, they used a validated self-report instrument called the Pain Sensitivity Questionnaire, as well as asked participants about their political orientation and conducted an assessment of the foundations of their moral outlook.
Liberals with higher pain sensitivity showed greater affinity for typically conservative moral values such as loyalty and authority. Pain-sensitive conservatives meanwhile showed more support for values such as care and fairness, usually associated with liberals.
The pattern continued when participants were asked about their 2020 voting intentions and their support for Democrat and Republican politicians.
So, along with being quicker to yelp “ouch!” does that mean the pain-sensitive are also confused about their own political orientation?
Dr. Lee cautions that “it’s not that their profile of moral sensitivities shifts from ‘only supporting our side’ to ‘only supporting the other side.’ Instead, they tend to be more supportive of both sides’ views.”
While the research doesn’t give a clear solution for how to find middle ground in a politically polarized society, it does shed light on a previously unexplored influence on our moral and political views.
Far from being purely rational, most people’s views “are infused with moral feelings, with emotional reactions to what’s right and wrong,” said Prof. Lee. “The better we understand the bases of a person’s moral feelings, the better we can explain and predict their political views.”
Pain sensitivity predicts support for moral and political views across the aisle
We live in a time of exacerbating political polarization. Bridging the ideological divide is hard. Although some strategies have been found effective for interpersonal persuasion and interaction across the aisle, little is known about what intrapersonal attributes predict which individuals are more inclined to support their ideological opponent’s views.
The present work identifies a low-level attribute—sensitivity to physical pain—that robustly predicts individual variations in support for moral and political views typically favored by one’s ideological opponent.
We first summarize a psychophysical validation of an established pain sensitivity measure (n = 263), then report a series of exploratory and preregistered confirmatory studies and replications (N = 7,360) finding that more (vs. less) pain-sensitive liberal Americans show greater endorsement of moral foundations typically endorsed by conservatives (Studies 1a–1c), higher likelihood of voting for Trump over Biden in the 2020 presidential election, stronger support for Republican politicians, and more conservative attitudes toward contentious political issues (Studies 2a and 2b).
Conservatives show the mirroring pattern. These “cross-aisle” effects of pain sensitivity are driven by heightened harm perception (Study 3). They defy lay intuitions (Study 4).
They are not attributable to multicollinearity or response set. The consistent findings across studies highlight the value of deriving integrative predictions from multiple previously unconnected perspectives (social properties of pain, moral foundations theory, dyadic morality theory, principle of multiple determinants in higher mental processes).
They open up novel directions for theorizing and research on why pain sensitivity predicts support for moral and political views across the aisle.