Response inhibition predicts painful task duration and performance in healthy individuals performing a cold pressor task in a motivational context


  • Funding sources

    This study was supported by a Veni grant (No. 453-04-003) provided by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. The contribution of Johan W.S. Vlaeyen was supported by the Odysseus Grant ‘the Psychology of Pain and Disability Research Program’ funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO Vlaanderen, Belgium).

  • Conflicts of interest

    None declared.



Long-term avoidance of painful activities has shown to be dysfunctional in chronic pain. Pain may elicit escape or avoidance responses automatically, particularly when pain-related fear is high. A conflict may arise between opposing short-term escape/avoidance goals to reduce pain and long-term approach goals to receive a reward. An inhibitory control system may resolve this conflict. It was hypothesized that reduced response inhibition would be associated with greater escape/avoidance during pain, particularly among subjects with higher pain-related fear.


Response inhibition was measured with the stop-signal task, and pain-related fear with the Fear of Pain Questionnaire. Participants completed a tone-detection task (TDT) in which they could earn money while being exposed to cold pressor pain. Escape/avoidance was operationalized as the hand immersion time during a cold pressor task (CPT) and the performance on the TDT.


Poorer response inhibition was associated with shorter CPT immersion duration and with worse TDT performance. Pain after the CPT was associated with pain-related fear, but not with response inhibition. No supportive evidence was found for the hypothesis that the relation between inhibition and escape/avoidance would be most pronounced for those with higher pain-related fear. In contrast, the relation between response inhibition and number of hits on the TDT was most pronounced for those with lower pain-related fear.


The findings suggest that individuals with a stronger ability to inhibit responses in a stop-signal task are better able to inhibit escape/avoidance responses elicited by pain, in the service of a conflicting approach goal.