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Strangers from different cultures have a soothing effect

Posted October 2, 2018

Pain has a devastating psychological effect. It debilitates you, it takes away your will and hope. We should be grateful that modern medicine has means to effectively control pain so that it wouldn‘t be completely unbearable. However, scientists from the University of Amsterdam, the University of Würzburg and the University of Zurich found that pain relief works better when administered by a person from different cultural background.

Pain. Image credit:, CC0 Public Domain

These results are rather surprising. Being close to people you know should be more soothing. You can identify with them, you know and trust them. However, when scientists set out investigating this question they quickly realized that strangers are actually soothing. Researchers conducted a controlled lab experiment to look into this phenomenon deeper. Participants of the study were divided into two groups. For this study they had to endure some mild pain on the back of their hands. Then for one group a person from a similar cultural and social background relieved the pain. In another group this was done by someone from a different background. Meanwhile scientists were measuring the effectiveness of the relief.

Because of the controlled test, both groups initially felt an equal amount of pain. However, people in the group that was treated by someone from a different background, reported receiving a stronger relief from the pain. Furthermore, it was not just a subjective response, related to person’s beliefs, attitudes and mood. Similar reduction of pain was observed in corresponding brain regions. Which means that strangers do actually somehow work as pain relievers themselves – they are soothing. But why?

Pain disables us, but today’s medicine has necessary means to control it. Image credit: Simon James via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Scientists say that although results are surprising, they are related to Pavlovian learning about pain relief. Dr Jan Engelmann, one of the authors of the study, explained that people who were treated by someone from a different cultural background “had initially low expectations about the outgroup, they had the opportunity to learn and update these expectations while they experienced the stranger repeatedly helping them. When such helping is more surprising or unexpected, social learning mechanisms lead to larger levels of pain relief, both at the neural and the behavioral level”. In other words, our brains are not wired to receive help from people who look completely different.

It is important to keep researching pain mechanisms in humans. Although today we have advanced pain-relief techniques, some people are still living in pain. Although it is difficult to say what kind of practical implications this study could have, it is just a part of a bigger puzzle.


Source:  University of Amsterdam

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