Picking a new dentist or doctor can be harrowing experience. Internet reviews and word of mouth may help, but oftentimes it comes down to first impressions, maybe even just a photo online. A new study shows that these impressions of people’s competence actually affect our anticipation of pain.
“The goal of this study was to show that when others are in a position to secure our safety, we make surface-level judgments of how competent they look and this plays a role in calculating our own safety,” says Dean Mobbs of Columbia University. “This information is used to up or down regulate our anticipation of danger or, in the case of our paper, the anticipation of pain.” Essentially, he says, an inference of high competence in a given context acts as a proxy for protection and safety.
The work was inspired by the research by Alex Todorov (Princeton) and colleagues on competency perception. In one study, Todorov found that judgment of competence levels predicts U.S. congressional electoral success. The idea underlying all this work is that as our ancestors evolved, they developed the capacity to make quick inferences about others based on limited information.
“This is evolutionary viable, as accurate inferences based on physiognomy could provide important information about whom to trust, whom to hunt with and whom to mate with,” Mobbs say. “Still the jury is out on whether we have a serious capacity to do this in the same way that we can recognize more salient facial features such as kinship or even emotion.”
To test how competency judgments affect anticipation of pain, Mobbs’ team, led by grad student Ellen Tedeschi, asked participants to play a working memory task that would get increasingly more challenging over time. The researchers video-recorded their performance and took photos of their faces. They then asked two different groups of participants to rate the competence of the players based on the photos, to ensure consistency in the ratings between the groups (which there was).
The researchers then used these ratings to select 15 most and least competent-looking faces for an fMRI study. While in the fMRI, participants would view photos of players and rate their competence to perform the working memory task. Next, the participants observed a short 2-second movie of the players starting the task. The screen would then of blank for about 12 seconds and if the player made a mistake on the working memory task during this time period, the participant received an electric shock.
“Therefore during this anticipation period, the participant’s only information is how competent the player looked.,” Mobbs explains.
As published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience online last month, the researchers found that the higher the participants rated the player’s competence, the less anxious they felt. “What was most exciting was the finding that the insula decreased in activity when the competent players performed the working memory task,” Mobbs saays. The insula is part of the pain network in the brain.
“Although we cannot attribute mechanism to this finding, it is clear that a part of the pain network is reduced based on the inferences of the players’ competence and, by proxy, their ability to perform the task without making mistake,” he says.
This work has important implications for understanding connections between anxiety and stress reduction in patients. “For example, believing that your doctor is competent may play a critical role in one’s trust in their clinical judgments and consequently result in faster recovery,” Mobbs says.
Mobbs’ team is also looking at the effects of reputation on this phenomenon. “We hope to understand the behavioral and neural systems that result in fear reduction and safety in the context of social interaction,” he says.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
The paper, “Inferences of Others’ Competence Reduces Anticipation of Pain When Under Threat” by Ellen Tedeschi, Jochen Weber, Charlotte Prévost, Walter Mischel and Dean Mobbs, was published online in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience on June 23, 2015.