A new study published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology suggests that when people are faced with inevitable pain, many of them prefer to 'get it out of the way' as soon as possible.
In the study, which was conducted from the Institute for Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London, and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, participants chose between real painful stimuli in the form of electric shocks, and imagined painful dental appointments occurring at different times in the future. Whilst most people chose to hasten the experience of pain, and would even accept more severe pain to avoid having to wait for it, a smaller proportion preferred to "put it off" into the future.
The anticipation of pain is a major source of misery. People who suffer from long-standing painful conditions report that the dread of worsening future pain can be more disabling than the pain itself. The general phenomenon is typically referred to as 'negative time preference'. The research team, led by Dr Giles Story, sought to better understand the fundamental processes by which people anticipate pain, with the hope of providing new insight into these conditions.
The authors conclude that, "Further research is required to uncover the constitutive mechanisms of dread". For clinicians and health policy makers, a greater understanding of these mechanisms could inform the way in which potentially painful investigations and treatments are practised.