Perceiving monetary loss as due to inequity reduces behavioral and cortical responses to pain

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Abstract

Studies indicate that physical and social pain may share some mechanisms and neural correlates. Nothing is known, however, on whether the neural activity in the nociceptive system, as indexed by laser-evoked potentials (LEPs), is modified when suffering the consequences of a conspecific violating social norms. To explore this issue, we created an interaction scenario where participants could gain money by performing a time-estimation task. On each win-trial, another player connected online could arbitrarily decide to keep the participant's pay-off for him- or herself. Thus, participants knew that monetary loss could occur because of their own failure in performing the task or because of the inequitable behavior of another individual. Moreover, participants were asked to play for themselves or on behalf of a third party. In reality, the win/loss events were entirely decided by an ad hoc programmed computer. At the end of the interaction, participants reported if they believed the game-playing interaction was real. Results showed that the loss due to the opponent's inequitable behavior brought about a reduction both in pain intensity self-reports and in the amplitude of LEPs' components (i.e. N2, N2/P2, P2a, P2b). Importantly, both the behavioral and neurophysiological effects were found in the participants who believed their deserved payoff was stolen by their opponent. Furthermore, reduction of vertex components was present only when the inequitable behavior was directed toward the self. These results suggest that, far from being a private experience, pain perception might be modulated by the social saliency of interpersonal interactions.

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