The Influence of Social Threat on Pain, Aggression, and Empathy in Women

  • Kai Karos
    Address reprint requests to Kai Karos, Msc, Department of Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102, Box 3726, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.
    Research Group of Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
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  • Ann Meulders
    Research Group of Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Center for Excellence on Generalization Research in Health and Psychopathology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
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  • Liesbet Goubert
    Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
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  • Johan W.S. Vlaeyen
    Research Group of Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Center for Excellence on Generalization Research in Health and Psychopathology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Department of Clinical Psychological Sciences, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands
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Published:November 21, 2017DOI:


      • Social threat is associated with increased threat value of pain.
      • Social threat also increases aggression and reduces empathy toward others.
      • Social threat did not affect painful facial expression.
      • Social threat also did not affect pain intensity or unpleasantness ratings.


      Only one published study has investigated the effect of a threatening social context on the perception and expression of pain, showing that social threat leads to increased pain reports but reduced nonverbal pain expression. The current study aimed to replicate and extend these findings to further explore the effects of a threatening social context. Healthy, female participants (N = 71) received 10 electrocutaneous stimuli delivered by a confederate. They were led to believe that the confederate was requested to administer 10 painful stimuli (control group) or that the confederate deliberately chose to deliver 10 painful stimuli when given the choice to deliver between 1 to 10 painful stimuli (social threat group). Self-reported pain intensity, unpleasantness, threat value of pain, and painful facial expression were assessed. Additionally, empathy and aggression toward the confederate were investigated. Social threat did not affect painful facial expression or self-reported pain intensity, but led to increased aggression toward the confederate. Moreover, perceived social threat predicted the threat value of pain and reduced empathy toward the confederate. We were not able to replicate the previously reported dissociation between pain reports and pain expression as a result of social threat. However, social threat was associated with an increased threat value of pain, increased aggression, and reduced empathy.


      A threatening social context affects how threatening pain is perceived and has interpersonal consequences such as increased aggression and reduced empathy, thereby creating a double burden on the individual suffering from pain.

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