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pain, social perception

pain, social perception The word ‘pain’ is used frequently in Western society, yet it is difficult to define, because it covers so many feelings and situations. It may be physical or mental, acute or chronic, caused by body damage or created in the mind. It may be punishment (as in Hell) or perception (including the common slang usage that describes someone or some situation as ‘a pain’). It may be a symptom, an isolated feeling, an indication for treatment (lobotomies have been done for intractable pain, both physical and mental). It can be a treatment in itself, as it was in Benjamin Rush's ‘tranquillizing chair’, said to have been an adaptation of the Inquisition's ‘witch chair’, the revolving chair that drenched patients with more than two hundred pails of water at one sitting. More recently forms of aversion therapy and mental pain have been recognized in many psychiatric procedures.

Many aspects of pain are subjective, and therefore difficult to define and perhaps impossible to measure. There are also objective aspects. These include watching people in pain — and the idea that, since hell was eternal pain, heaven would be watching the damned burn. Watching executions was once a popular amusement (and still is, where they are held in public), indulged in even by so-called civilized people such as Pepys and Evelyn.

Pain can be inflicted for punishment, sport (stag- or fox-hunting), or amusement (bear- or badger-baiting, dog- or cock-fighting), or as an overt outlet for energy or sadistic gratification. Sadistic doctors (especially psychiatrists) are popular in fiction and films. They aren't supposed to exist in real life.

Pain of one sort or another is the commonest symptom for which people seek relief from doctors, either as a sign of body damage or as a ‘cry for help’ from a distressed mind. Doctors often try to solve the problem by turning it into an objective study. It can be an intellectual challenge, something to be reconstructed in a ‘scientific’ manner, reduced to something that can be measured. It can also be a challenge, a manifestation of power, part of some kind of progress, perhaps a gauge of medical progress or of civilization, or even a means of empire-building.

Michael Balint, who probably did more than anyone to teach general practitioners how the mind influences the body, wrote in his book The Doctor, His Patient and the Illness:
Every doctor has a set of fairly firm beliefs as to which illnesses are acceptable and which not; how much pain, suffering, fear and deprivation a patient should tolerate and when he has the right to ask for help or relief … These beliefs are hardly ever stated explicitly but they are nevertheless very strong.

Pain can also be studied as a historical phenomenon. There have been enormous changes in public attitudes to pain during the last two hundred and fifty years. This was so striking that, at one time, the American physician Weir Mitchell thought that the physiology of pain had changed during the nineteenth century. There was a marked shift in attitude, from the belief that pain was a punishment for sin and should be borne with fortitude with the aid of the Church, to the belief that it was something to be conquered and cured and that this conquest was for doctors to achieve. Some came to believe that this was the sole purpose of doctors, their raison d'etre, a belief and attitude that is common today.

Although there have been attempts to overcome pain as long as there has been civilization, there seems to have been no concerted effort to do this until the mid nineteenth century. This can be seen in the lack of interest in or acceptance of analgesia and anaesthesia, despite the fact that they were known. God put Adam to sleep when he created Eve from his rib. Opium was known to virtually all civilizations. Paracelsus prepared ether or some such anaesthetic, which he called ‘sweet vitriol’ and said: ‘… it quiets all suffering without any harm, and relieves all pain, and quenches all fevers and prevents complications in all illnesses’, but he dared not use it on humans for fear of offending the Church.

The Church was powerful in imposing attitudes towards pain. Christianity had no tradition of relieving pain. When chloroform was introduced it was bitterly criticized as immoral — because it relieved pain. Pain was not regarded as a physical malfunction but as part of the universe. It was what Dr Johnson called ‘the pain of being a man’, perhaps God's punishment. For some believers, such as Descartes, pain was a self-protective mechanism that taught the soul to avoid further damage to the body.

In 1800 Humphry Davy published the results of his experiments with nitrous oxide and suggested that it might be used for anaesthesia, both in alleviating the pain of inflamed gums and ‘during surgical operations’. Yet no one seems to have been interested in this for nearly half a century, despite the considerable increase in surgical knowledge and skill during that period. Even after anaesthesia had been accepted, it had little immediate effect on the practice of surgery or on the number of operations performed. The nineteenth century was an age of secularization and of increasingly humanitarian sentiments. Inevitably ideas about pain were part of these. In 1853 a medicine labelled as a ‘painkiller’ was marketed for the first time. Since then there has been decreasing emphasis on a world made bad by sin and increasing emphasis on a world made bad by suffering and pain. Progress in civilization has come to mean reduction of the sum of human suffering, even if the world does not comply. It may be because we can now envisage and even experience a pain-free existence (which would have been impossible before) that we are so horrified by the widespread infliction of pain in the modern world.

Ann Dally

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Social Perception

Social perception

The processes through which people form impressions of others and interpret information about them.

Researchers have confirmed the conventional wisdom that first impressions are important. Studies show that first impressions are easily formed, difficult to change, and have a long-lasting influence. Rather than absorbing each piece of new information about an individual in a vacuum, it is common for people to invoke a preexisting prototype or schema based on some aspect of the person (for example, "grandmother" or "graduate student"), modifying it with specific information about the particular individual to arrive at an overall first impression. One term for this process is schema-plus-correction. It can be dangerous because it allows people to infer many things from a very limited amount of information, which partially explains why first impressions are often wrong.

If there is no special reason to think negatively about a person, one's first impression of that person will normally be positive, as people tend to give others the benefit of the doubt. However, people are especially attentive to negative factors, and if these are present, they will outweigh the positive ones in generating impressions. One reason first impressions are so indelible is that people have a tendency to interpret new information about a person in a light that will reinforce their first impression. They also tend to remember the first impression, or overall schema, better than any subsequent corrections. Thus if a person whom one thinks of as competent makes a mistake, it will tend to be overlooked and eventually forgotten, and the original impression is the one that will prevail. Conversely, one will tend to forget or undervalue good work performed by someone initially judged to be incompetent. In addition, people often treat each other in ways that tend to elicit behavior that conforms to their impressions of each other.

Besides impression formation, the other key area focused on in the study of social perception is attribution, the thought processes we employ in explaining the behavior of other people and our own as well. The most fundamental observation we make about a person's behavior is whether it is due to internal or external causes (Is the behavior determined by the person's own characteristics or by the situation in which it occurs?). We tend to base this decision on a combination of three factors. Consensus refers to whether other people exhibit similar behavior; consistency refers to whether the behavior occurs repeatedly; and distinctiveness is concerned with whether the behavior occurs in other, similar situations.

Certain cognitive biases tend to influence whether people attribute behavior to internal or external causes. When we observe the behavior of others, our knowledge of the external factors influencing that behavior is limited, which often leads us to attribute it to internal factors (a tendency known as the fundamental attribution error). However, we are aware of numerous external factors that play a role in our own behavior. This fact, combined with a natural desire to think well of ourselves, produces actor-observer bias, a tendency to attribute our own behavior (especially when inappropriate or unsuccessful) to external factors.

Further Reading

Zebrowitz, Leslie. Social Perception. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., 1990.

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