Indirect acquisition of pain-related fear: an experimental study of observational learning using coloured cold metal bars.PLoS One. 2015; 10(3):e0117236.Plos
Previous research has demonstrated that pain-related fear can be acquired through observation of another's pain behaviour during an encounter with a painful stimulus. The results of two experimental studies were presented, each with a different pain stimulus, of which the aim was to investigate the effect of observational learning on pain expectancies, avoidance behaviour, and physiological responding. Additionally, the study investigated whether certain individuals are at heightened risk to develop pain-related fear through observation. Finally, changes in pain-related fear and pain intensity after exposure to the feared stimulus were examined.
During observational acquisition, healthy female participants watched a video showing coloured cold metal bars being placed against the neck of several models. In a differential fear conditioning paradigm, one colour was paired with painful facial expressions, and another colour was paired with neutral facial expressions of the video models. During exposure, both metal bars with equal temperatures (-25° or +8° Celsius) were placed repeatedly against participants' own neck.
Results showed that pain-related beliefs can be acquired by observing pain in others, but do not necessarily cause behavioural changes. Additionally, dispositional empathy might play a role in the acquisition of these beliefs. Furthermore, skin conductance responses were higher when exposed to the pain-associated bar, but only in one of two experiments. Differential pain-related beliefs rapidly disappeared after first-hand exposure to the stimuli.
This study enhances our understanding of pain-related fear acquisition and subsequent exposure to the feared stimulus, providing leads for pain prevention and management strategies.