Empathy Predicts an Experimental Pain Reduction During Touch

J Pain. 2016 Oct;17(10):1049-1057. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2016.06.007. Epub 2016 Jun 27.


Previous studies have provided evidence for pain-alleviating effects of segmental tactile stimulation, yet the effect of social touch and its underlying mechanism is still unexplored. Considering that the soma affects the way we think, feel, and interact with others, it has been proposed that touch may communicate emotions, including empathy, interacting with the identity of the toucher. Thus, the goal of the current study was to examine the analgesic effects of social touch, and to test the moderating role of the toucher's empathy in analgesia using an ecological paradigm. Tonic heat stimuli were administered to women. Concurrently, their partners either watched or touched their hands, a stranger touched their hands, or no one interacted with them. The results revealed diminished levels of pain during partners' touch compared with all other control conditions. Furthermore, taking into account the dyadic interaction, only during the touch condition we found 1) a significant relationship between the partners' pain ratings, and 2) a significant negative relationship between the male touchers' empathy and the pain experience of their female partners. The findings highlight the powerful analgesic effect of social touch and suggest that empathy between romantic partners may explain the pain-alleviating effects of social touch.

Perspective: Pain research mostly concentrates on different factors around a single pain target, without taking into account various social interactions with the observers. Our findings support the idea that pain perception models should be extended, taking into account some psychological characteristics of observers. Our conclusions are on the basis of advanced statistical methods.

Keywords: Empathy for pain; analgesia; experimental pain; romantic couples; touch.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Pain Perception*
  • Psychophysics
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Sexual Partners / psychology
  • Social Behavior*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Touch*
  • Young Adult