An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection

Pain. 2006 Dec 15;126(1-3):132-8. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2006.06.024. Epub 2006 Aug 4.


Recent evidence points to a possible overlap in the neural systems underlying the distressing experience that accompanies physical pain and social rejection (Eisenberger et al., 2003). The present study tested two hypotheses that stem from this suggested overlap, namely: (1) that baseline sensitivity to physical pain will predict sensitivity to social rejection and (2) that experiences that heighten social distress will heighten sensitivity to physical pain as well. In the current study, participants' baseline cutaneous heat pain unpleasantness thresholds were assessed prior to the completion of a task that manipulated feelings of social distress. During this task, participants played a virtual ball-tossing game, allegedly with two other individuals, in which they were either continuously included (social inclusion condition) or they were left out of the game by either never being included or by being overtly excluded (social rejection conditions). At the end of the game, three pain stimuli were delivered and participants rated the unpleasantness of each. Results indicated that greater baseline sensitivity to pain (lower pain unpleasantness thresholds) was associated with greater self-reported social distress in response to the social rejection conditions. Additionally, for those in the social rejection conditions, greater reports of social distress were associated with greater reports of pain unpleasantness to the thermal stimuli delivered at the end of the game. These results provide additional support for the hypothesis that pain distress and social distress share neurocognitive substrates. Implications for clinical populations are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Games, Experimental
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Male
  • Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Pain / etiology
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Pain Threshold
  • Rejection, Psychology*
  • Skin / physiopathology
  • Social Isolation*