Under the Hood

Why Strangers Provide Better Pain Relief Than Someone From Your Own Group

Imagine you were experiencing some sort of pain which needs treatment. Do you think you would be more soothed if you were treated by someone of your own social group or a person from a different group?

The study titled "Pain relief provided by an outgroup member enhances analgesia" was published in the latest issue of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences on Sept. 25.

It was led by Grit Hein, Ph.D., a professor of translational social neuroscience at the University of Würzburg in Germany. The idea for the study came to her when she noticed many doctors and nurses do not share the same nationality or even the same social group as their patients.

To understand how this affects patients, the team decided to look at pain recovery specifically since psychological factors play a role in how we process pain.

The set up was simple — 20 Swiss men were recruited and divided into two sets. After all of them received mild shocks to induce pain on the back of the hand, one set of participants were provided relieved by a Swiss person (i.e. from their own social group).

Meanwhile, the other set received pain relief from a person who was from the Balkans. In the paper, the authors noted the presence of this group has often been portrayed as problematic.

In previous research, experts have explored how in-group favoritism or a bias toward people from one's in-group is quite pervasive among human beings. So it would seem plausible people may feel more soothed and experience greater pain relief when treated by someone from their own group.

However, the results of the study surprisingly indicated the opposite. Participants treated by the person from the Balkans were more likely to report less intense pain compared to the participants who were treated by a Swiss person.

"Before the treatment, both groups showed similarly strong responses to pain," Hein said. Furthermore, this was not just a subjective matter of how they perceived the pain since the researchers also found changes in their brains while conducting scans. In simple terms, there was a reduction of the pain-related activation in the brain regions of those who were treated by the "stranger."

"The participants who received pain relief from an outgroup member had not expected to actually get effective help from this person," Hein explained, noting how they felt all the more surprised when the pain reduced.

This relatively heightened response may activate certain regions of the brain to help them "re-contextualize" their pain, according to Inverse.

"Of course, this finding still needs to be verified outside the laboratory", Hein added, "but it could be relevant for the clinical context where treatment by nurses and doctors from different cultures is common today."