Researchers at the University of Toronto have uncovered a startling link: heightened pain sensitivity correlates with sympathy for political views typically held by the opposing party. Individuals with increased pain sensitivity were found to be more likely to support and even vote for politicians from the opposing political camp.
For instance, conservatives with this trait were more inclined to vote for Biden over Trump in the 2020 elections. Conversely, liberals with this attribute showed a mirror pattern.
If you’re scratching your head right now, you’re not alone. Even the researchers themselves were dumbfounded by the initial results.
A surprising pattern emerges
“We were honestly not expecting to see this kind of cross-aisle effects of pain sensitivity,” said Professor Spike Lee, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
“When we first found it, we thought it might be a fluke. That’s why we ran a replication study. We found it again. We ran extended replications and follow-up studies. We kept finding it.”
Initially sparked by an experience in his dentist’s chair, Lee’s curiosity led to a series of studies involving over 7,000 participants in the United States. These studies aimed to explore how pain sensitivity influences perceptions of moral and political threats.
The researchers utilized the Pain Sensitivity Questionnaire to gauge each participant’s pain threshold and then examined their political orientations and moral foundations. The results consistently showed a trend where liberals with higher pain sensitivity leaned towards conservative moral values like loyalty and authority, while pain-sensitive conservatives showed greater affinity for traditionally liberal values such as care and fairness.
This pattern extended to endorsement in presidential elections. The research indicated that liberals with heightened pain sensitivity were more inclined to vote for a candidate like Trump. Conversely, pain-sensitive conservatives showed a predisposition towards voting for a candidate like Biden, known for his liberal stance.
One may look at these findings and simply conclude that the participants in this trait bracket are simply confused by their political compass. Although they identify as liberal, they might simply be conservative in sentiment — and vice-versa. But that’s not it, says Lee.
“It’s not that their profile of moral sensitivities shifts from ‘only supporting our side’ to ‘only supporting the other side.’ Instead, they tend to be more supportive of both sides’ views,” the researcher said.
In today’s highly polarized American political landscape where voting for the opposing camp is seen as outright heresy, these findings are definitely something to think about. It may be the case that people who more easily experience pain than the general population are more open to ideas, values, and even relationships that are counter to their typical political leanings.
It’s certainly a fresh perspective on the intricate relationship between our physical experiences and political beliefs. This insight could prove useful for political campaigns targeting swing voters — citizens who are on the fence as to which political candidate to vote for.
Most people’s views “are infused with moral feelings, with emotional reactions to what’s right and wrong,” said Prof. Lee. “The better we understand the bases of a person’s moral feelings, the better we can explain and predict their political views.”
The findings appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition.
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