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The many benefits of TLC

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
tender loving care, TLC, pain reduction, pleasure increase, perception

COLLEGE PARK, MD––According to a new study, tender, loving care (TLC) can both reduce pain and promote pleasure. The study was published online on January 17 in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science by University of Maryland psychologist Kurt Gray, PhD. Dr. Gray is director of the Maryland Mind Perception and Morality Lab. He noted that the way one reads another person’s intentions changes his or her physical experience of the world. He explained that the results of his study confirm that good intentions, even misguided ones, can sooth pain, increase pleasure and make things taste better.

Dr. Gray wrote that while it seems clear that good and evil intentions can change the experience of social events. For example, the reaction to a mean-spirited, cutting remark differs markedly to that of gentle ribbing spoken with a smile. He noted that his study revealed that physical events are influenced by the perceived contents of another person’s mind; thus, one uses the intentions of others as a guide for basic physical experience.

The power of good intentions to shape physical experience was demonstrated in three separate experiments: the first examined pain, the second examined pleasure, and the third examined the taste of a sweet treat.

The pain experiment addressed the issue of whether kindness reduces pain. Three groups of participants received identical electric shocks at the hand of a partner. Members of the first group were in the “accidental” condition: They thought they were being shocked without their partner’s awareness. The second, or “malicious” condition, group thought they were being shocked on purpose, for no good reason. The final group (“benevolent” condition), also thought that they were being shocked on purpose; however, because another person was trying to help them win money. This study found that the participants in the “benevolent” group experienced significantly less pain than both the “malicious” and “accident” participants. Dr. Gray noted that this finding should reassure healthcare professionals and parents who are sometimes obliged to inflict pain on those under their care for their own good.

The pleasure experiment addressed the issue of whether good intentions heighten the experience of pleasure. The participants sat on an electric massage pad in an easy chair which was repeatedly turned on, either by an indifferent computer or a caring partner. Although the massages were identical, Dr. Gray found that partner massages caused significantly more pleasure than those administered by a computer. He concluded that although computers may be more efficient than humans at many things, more pleasure is attained from attention from another person.

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The taste experiment addressed the issue of whether benevolence improves how things taste. The participants were given candy in a package with a note attached. For the benevolent group, the note read: “I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy.” The non-benevolent (indifferent) version read: “Whatever. I just don’t care. I just picked it randomly.” The candy not only tasted better to the benevolent group but it also was reported to taste significantly sweeter. Dr. Gray concluded that perceived benevolence not only improves the experience of pain and pleasure but also can improve the taste of a substance.

Research is of limited value without practical applications; therefore, Dr. Gray pointed out some. He noted that, the first experiment suggests that medical personal should ensure that they possess a good bedside manner. He explained that the perceived pain of a medical procedure depends in part upon the perceived intentions of the person administering it. For example, having a blood specimen drawn is not a pleasant experience. If the phlebotomist gruffly commands to extend your arm and slaps a tourniquet on, the perceived pain will be greater than that of a caring technician who takes a moment to profess concern, talks softly, and gently applies the tourniquet.

For those in relationships, Dr. Gray advised that the message was to make sure one’s partner, sibling, friend, etc. knows that he or she cares. He explained that it is not enough just to do good things for your partner; they have to know you want them to feel good. This can be expressed with kind words or a simple hug. He added that the same policy could also apply to cooking, where emphasizing your concern about the experience of the diners could make the meal that you prepared taste better.

Dr. Gray noted that his study results are also applicable to the business world. He noted that food companies often pair their products with kindly grandparents or smiling mothers; this advertising technique emits a warm, positive feeling toward the food product.

Dr. Gray’s study also suggests that the general benefits of thinking that others mean well extends to their god. He noted that painful events attributed to a benevolent god would be perceived to be less hurtful than ones attributed to a vengeful god.

He summarized that to the extent that we view others as benevolent instead of malicious, the harms they inflict upon us should hurt less, and the good things they do for us should cause more pleasure. Stolen parking places irritate us to a lesser degree and home-cooked meals taste better when we think well of the other person.

Reference: Social Psychological & Personality Science