Social Pain = Physical Pain

by | Sep 16, 2019


The pains and pleasure of social life are intense. Being included as part of a group feels great, but on the flip-side feeling excluded or shunned hurts horribly. Breakups can hurt so bad they are practically disabling.

Research into the physiology of the brain has found that “social pains and pleasures bear a surprising resemblance to physical pains and pleasures.”

Social Pain

It turns out that social injuries register in the brain very similarly to how physical injuries do.

In a fascinating study of social exclusion out of UCLA, researchers conducted an experiment where they placed volunteers in functional MRI machines and recorded their brain activity while they were playing a video game.

The volunteers played a game called “cyberball” which is a virtual game of catch. They were told they were playing with two other people – supposedly in other fMRI machines in the building. In reality, the subjects with which they were playing catch were simulated. In the experiment the two virtual subjects were programmed to increasingly exclude the volunteer from playing catch as the game progressed.

The imaging of the volunteers’ brains showed that as they experienced exclusion the part of the brain that registers physical pain lit up with activity and looked just like imaging of the brains registering physical pain.

Similarly, studies have found that people with higher tolerance for physical pain also have a higher tolerance for social pain.

Social Pleasure

Similar to social pain, social pleasure has also shown to trigger the parts of the brain that are active during physical pleasure.

To record social pleasure, volunteers in an fMRI machine played the Ultimatum Game – which deals with sharing money between participants. When the volunteers were treated fairly, the reward system of the brain was stimulated. Other similar experiments have come to the same conclusion: social pleasure activates the reward system of the brain that also delights in physical pleasures.

Why Are Social Pains and Pleasures So Intense?

There is a likely evolutionary explanation for why we feel social pains and pleasure so intensely. According to the UCLA researchers:

We believe that the social pain system in the brain may have piggybacked onto the physical pain system during mammalian evolution, borrowing the pain signal to indicate broken social bonds. Although people generally agree that our basic survival needs are food, water, and shelter, because mammalian young are born immature, incapable of providing for their own physical needs, they must stay connected to their caregivers. In young mammals, the need for this social connection actually supersedes the need for food, water, and shelter, because without a caregiver to provide these needs, young mammals would not survive. Just as evolution has wired us to feel pain when we lack food (e.g. hunger), water (e.g. thirst), or shelter (e.g. freezing, sunburn), perhaps evolution has wired us to feel pain when we lack or anticipate a lack of social connection.

What Can We Learn From This?

First and foremost, we must strive to be kind. Realize that hurting someone’s feelings, treating them poorly or excluding them is causing real pain. It turns out that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is crap. Words can hurt just like sticks and stones.

Second, financial rewards, while important, aren’t the only (or even primary) motivation for people. Being respected and treated as part of a team can generate social pleasure that is very satisfying and motivating. We evolved as a species to be social and it makes sense that being included and treated fairly generates warm fuzzies. Likewise, being treated unfairly and disrespected can can make for very unhappy employees.

Third, if someone is experiencing social difficulties, like a breakup, we should realize that they are really feeling pain. It may effect them for quite some time and it isn’t easy just to “get over it.”

Source for this IFOD and all quotes: The Pains and Pleasures of Social Life: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Approach.

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting iFod. Now that I think about it, I remember more socially painful events in my life than the physical ones.


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