Why do some people hurt themselves? Not in the more abstract, way that people, say, date people they shouldn’t or drink too much—what about the people who really hurt themselves compulsively, the cutters, the self-flagellators, the nipple-clampers, the hair-shirt-wearers?
A new study suggests the answer may lie in the intense relief we feel when it is over.
Previous thinking on the subject didn’t make a clear distinction between the positive emotions felt when pain ends and the mere cessation of negative emotions. Did people feel relief simply because the negative emotions had passed? Or did they also feel a jolt of positive emotion as well—two distinctly different and measurable things?
Led by psychology professor Joseph C. Franklin at the University of North Carolina, researchers designed a test to measure the kinds of emotions that follow the abatement of pain. As a press release published with the new study, published today in the journal Psychological Science, describes it:
Franklin and colleagues used recording electrodes to measure participants’ negative emotions (eyeblink startle response) and positive emotions (muscle activity behind the ear) in response to loud noises; sometimes the loud noise was presented alone and other times it was presented 3.5, 6, or 14 seconds after receiving a low- or high-intensity shock.
The researchers found that not only did their subjects’ negative emotions decrease once the administered pain was turned off, the subjects’ positive emotions spiked. What’s more, the greatest spikes in positive emotion followed the highest intensity shocks, suggesting that the greater the pain is, the greater is the pleasure that follows.
Curiously, the greatest decreases in negative emotion generally occurred on the heels of low-intensity shocks, suggesting, perhaps, that there is a threshold somewhere between pain and annoyance. Perhaps cracking through that threshold increases the incentive to end it by making relief more about pleasure than about simply not feeling bad (my analysis).
That could go a long way toward explaining what self-harming people experience when they self-inflicts non-suicidal injury and why they often do it again and again. As a potential factor in traumatic bonding—the phenomenon better known as “Stockholm Syndrome,” whereby torture victims fall in love with their captors—the import of these findings seems equally obvious.
Researchers tested subjects with both a history of self-injury and subjects with none, and found there was no correlation between people’s histories and the degree of positive feeling brought by relief. That may mean we’re all prone to Stockholm syndrome given the right circumstances. But it’s actually good news for those of us that don’t already feel inclined to hurt ourselves. All things being equal, if it were only the positive incentives of pain relief that motivated self-harmers, we’d all be doing it. The fact that we aren’t suggests that the difference between people who harm themselves and people who don’t has more to do with some people's counterintuitive willingness to cross the border into self-harm.
Pain hurts, in other words, and not all of us want to go through it for the tincture of good vibes its relief provides. Most of us would rather just fly a kite or grab a beer.