Background and aims Twin studies have found that approximately half of the variance in pain tolerance can be explained by genetic factors, while shared family environment has a negligible effect. Hence, a large proportion of the variance in pain tolerance is explained by the (non-shared) unique environment. The social environment beyond the family is a potential candidate for explaining some of the variance in pain tolerance. Numerous individual traits have previously shown to be associated with friendship ties. In this study, we investigate whether pain tolerance is associated with friendship ties. Methods We study the friendship effect on pain tolerance by considering data from the Tromsø Study: Fit Futures I, which contains pain tolerance measurements and social network information for adolescents attending first year of upper secondary school in the Tromsø area in Northern Norway. Pain tolerance was measured with the cold-pressor test (primary outcome), contact heat and pressure algometry. We analyse the data by using statistical methods from social network analysis. Specifically, we compute pairwise correlations in pain tolerance among friends. We also fit network autocorrelation models to the data, where the pain tolerance of an individual is explained by (among other factors) the average pain tolerance of the individual's friends. Results We find a significant and positive relationship between the pain tolerance of an individual and the pain tolerance of their friends. The estimated effect is that for every 1 s increase in friends' average cold-pressor tolerance time, the expected cold-pressor pain tolerance of the individual increases by 0.21 s (p-value: 0.0049, sample size n=997). This estimated effect is controlled for sex. The friendship effect remains significant when controlling for potential confounders such as lifestyle factors and test sequence among the students. Further investigating the role of sex on this friendship effect, we only find a significant peer effect of male friends on males, while there is no significant effect of friends' average pain tolerance on females in stratified analyses. Similar, but somewhat lower estimates were obtained for the other pain modalities. Conclusions We find a positive and significant peer effect in pain tolerance. Hence, there is a significant tendency for students to be friends with others with similar pain tolerance. Sex-stratified analyses show that the only significant effect is the effect of male friends on males. Implications Two different processes can explain the friendship effect in pain tolerance, selection and social transmission. Individuals might select friends directly due to similarity in pain tolerance, or indirectly through similarity in other confounding variables that affect pain tolerance. Alternatively, there is an influence effect among friends either directly in pain tolerance, or indirectly through other variables that affect pain tolerance. If there is indeed a social influence effect in pain tolerance, then the social environment can account for some of the unique environmental variance in pain tolerance. If so, it is possible to therapeutically affect pain tolerance through alteration of the social environment.
Keywords: assortativity; cold-pressor test; pain tolerance; social influence; social network.