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Causing oneself pain reduces feelings of guilt

Updated: Mar 09, 2011, 11:44 AM IST

Washington: A new study set out to find if self-inflicted pain really alleviates the guilt associated with immoral acts.

Psychological scientist Brock Bastian of the University of Queensland, Australia and his colleagues asked a group of young men and women to write short essays about a time in their lives when they had ostracized someone.

A control group merely wrote about a routine event in their lives.

Then the researchers told some of the volunteers—both “immoral” volunteers and controls—to stick their hand into a bucket of ice water and keep it there as long as they could. Others did the same, only with a soothing bucket of warm water.

Finally, all the volunteers rated the pain they had just experienced—if any—and they completed an emotional inventory that included feelings of guilt.

Results showed that those who were primed to think of their own unethical nature not only kept their hands in the ice bath longer, they also rated the experience as more painful than did controls.

And experiencing pain did reduce these volunteers’ feelings of guilt—more than the comparable but painless experience with warm water.

According to the scientists, humans have been socialized over ages to think of pain in terms of justice.

We equate it with punishment, and the experience has the psychological effect of rebalancing the scales of justice—and therefore resolving guilt.

The study is published in Psychological Science.

ANI