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Oh, The Pain of Rejection (and Buying A New iPod) January 31, 2007

Posted by Johan in Social Neuroscience.
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A paper by Eisenberg, Lieberman and Williams kept popping up a few years ago, and the other day a more recent article cropped up, which brought back previous annoyances to the point where I had to make a post about it.

Essentially, Eisenberg et al found that the anterior cingulate cortex, which is known to be active when we experience physical pain, was also active when participants in the study were subjected to social rejection, as part of a ball-tossing game. Naturally, these findings are easily translated into nice headlines. There is something appealing about the notion that the site of social pain would be the same as the site of physical pain. It fits our metaphors – “love hurts.”

Along similar lines of research, a recent paper in Neuron by Knutson et al claims that the insula becomes activated when we are confronted with high prices. The same region, buried deep in the Sylvian fissure, is also activated by the anticipation of physical pain. They report a negative correlation between insula activity and purchasing.

Once again, it’s tempting to interpret these results in terms of metaphor – “a stinging loss.” Anyone who has lost half the vacation budget at a Poker table on the first night knows that there is in any case some kind of pain involved.

However, it is not physical pain. Nor does social rejection physically hurt. I could prick you with a needle and then play a ball game where you never get the ball (this would be the best experiment ever), and I can assure you that the two ensuing responses are quite easy to dissociate. Both these articles seem to be interpreted as though they show that social processes are closely related to physical pain, but perhaps what they really show is that regions we thought to be causative in the experience of physical pain are clearly not, as other stimuli can produce activation without the ensuing experience of pain.

Two caveats: the authors of these two studies have been reasonably careful in their interpretations, and should not be held responsible for how their research is then described in secondary sources. Also, I don’t mean to imply that there is no relationship between physical pain and “social pains.” The two papers I’ve mentioned here both seem to show that such a relationship exists. But it is unlikely to be as simple as a “pain center,” that is activated by all kinds of social and physical pains.

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