Learning to fear pain after observing another's pain: An experimental study in schoolchildren.Eur J Pain. 2020 04; 24(4):791-806.EJ
Children of individuals with chronic pain have an increased vulnerability to experience pain problems, possibly through observation of pain in their parents. As pain-related fear (PRF) is a critical factor in the development and maintenance of chronic pain, the current experimental study examined the acquisition of PRF through observational learning and subsequent extinction after first-hand experience of the feared stimulus.
Healthy children (8-16 years) observed either their mother or a stranger performing two cold pressor tasks (CPT) filled with coloured water. In a differential conditioning procedure, one colour (CS+) was combined with genuine painful facial expressions and the other colour (CS-) with neutral facial expressions. Following this observation phase, children performed both CPTs (10°C) themselves.
Children expected the CS+ to be more painful than the CS- and they reported being more afraid and hesitant to immerse in the CS+ compared to the CS-. Moreover, this fear was reflected in children's level of arousal in anticipation of CPT performance. This learned association extinguished after performing both CPTs. Effects were not moderated by whether the child observed their mother or a stranger, by the child's pain catastrophizing, trait PRF or trait anxiety. Remarkably, learning effects increased when the child perceived a larger difference between the model's painful and neutral facial expressions.
This study provides evidence for observational learning of PRF and subsequent extinction in schoolchildren. This acquisition of PRF by observing parental pain may contribute to vulnerabilities in children of parents with chronic pain.
Children may acquire pain-related fear by observing pain in others and this learned fear can diminish after first-hand experience. Remarkably, observational learning did not depend on the children's relationship with the model, but it did depend on the intensity of pain that is perceived. A better understanding of the impact of observing (parental) pain may help clarify the intergenerational transmission of risk for pain and inform the development of preventive programs.