The science of guilt and pain

I recently came across a scientific paper, published back in January, demonstrating a psychological connection between guilt and pain. Many organized religions seem to draw on just such a connection, and this fact is what led researchers to test the phenomenon scientifically.

The original paper, called Cleansing the soul by hurting the flesh, is only two pages if you want to read it (though it is behind a paywall). For those who don’t have access, an article at The Economist does a very good job of summarizing the experiment and the results. Basically, the experiment found that participants who were primed to feel guilty by writing about a time when they behaved unethically were more likely to seek out pain than the control group, and report their guilt as having lessened because of it.

So it does seem that pain can assuage guilt. The authors of the study discuss their findings:

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.

Indeed, humans not only seem to seek pain out when they feel guilty, but also feel the need to punish others with pain when they have transgressed.

People are socialized to understand pain within this judicial framework. Physical pain is employed as a penalty (e.g., spanking children for misbehavior), and unexplained pain is often understood as punishment from God. The judicial model is explicit in the Latin word for pain, poena, which means “to pay the penalty.” Understood this way, pain may be perceived as repayment for sin in three ways. First, pain is the embodiment of atonement. Just as physical cleansing washes away sin, physical pain is experienced as a penalty, and paying that penalty reestablishes moral purity. Second, subjecting oneself to pain communicates remorse to others (including God) and signals that one has paid for one’s sins, and this removes the threat of external punishment. Third, tolerating the punishment of pain is a test of one’s virtue, reaffirming one’s positive identity to oneself and others.

Religion takes advantage of all three of these – pain as a show of remorse, pain as an absolution, and pain as a demonstration of virtue.

While the connection between pain and guilt seems to be a real one, the question I would ask is, does focusing on it bring any benefit for humans or human societies? After all, guilt can also be assuaged by seeking forgiveness, attempting to right wrongs of the past, and accepting that one has made a mistake and trying harder the next time to do the right thing. These are all good things, and actually serve as a redress of harm – contrary to the infliction of pain, which serves mainly as a way of taking revenge on those who have wronged us.

When seen in this light, pain seems to be the least helpful or ethical way of dealing with unethical behavior. In focusing on pain, religion seems to be more concerned with fulfillment of our baser human desires for retribution and revenge than in making human societies any happier, healthier, or freer.


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Filed under Crime and Punishment, Morality, Psychology, Religion, Science

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