A study has found that a high sensitivity to pain may increase the likelihood that someone will be sympathetic to opposing political views, and may even cause a Trump supporter to vote for Biden and a Biden supporter to vote for Trump.
Politics can be a particularly polarizing topic. Especially in the US, there is often division along ideological lines due to conflicting points of view held by liberals and conservatives on everything from traditions and the family to social structure and the status quo.
People’s political views are closely tied to their moral views. Sometimes, people are persuaded by external factors to change their political views, for example, framing liberal policies around moral themes that appeal to conservatives and vice versa. But little is known about the internal – or intrapersonal – attributes that contribute to a person supporting moral and political views that are opposite to one’s ideology.
Now, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management have found one attribute that appears to make people more open to endorsing values common to people with opposite political views: sensitivity to pain.
“We were honestly not expecting to see this kind of cross-aisle effects of pain sensitivity,” said Spike Lee, the lead author of the study. “When we first found it, we thought it might be a fluke. That’s why we ran a replication study. We found it again. We ran extended replications and follow-up studies. We kept finding it.”
Pain is a universal experience, although individuals vary in their sensitivity to it. Brain imaging studies have shown that feeling others’ pain and feeling pain oneself involves common neural networks. So, the researchers hypothesized that a higher sensitivity to physical pain would equate to a higher sensitivity to others’ physical and social pain and lead to stronger moral views.
The researchers ran seven studies with more than 7,000 US participants to test competing theories about how pain sensitivity affects our perception of political or moral threats. They used a validated self-report instrument, the Pain Sensitivity Questionnaire, to gauge participants’ pain sensitivity, and asked them about their political orientation.
They found that liberals with higher pain sensitivity showed a greater affinity for typically conservative moral values like loyalty and authority. And pain-sensitive conservatives displayed more support for values usually associated with liberals: care and fairness.
More than that, the researchers found that higher pain sensitivity predicted stronger inclinations to support political views and show voting preferences typically exhibited by an ideological opponent. Specifically, liberals with a higher pain sensitivity were more likely to vote for Trump over Biden in the 2020 US presidential election, and vice versa for conservatives, who were more likely to vote for Biden over Trump.
“Some of the highly pain-sensitive liberals and conservatives showed voting preferences typically exhibited by their ideological opponents,” said the researchers. “But it was not the case that the majority of highly pain-sensitive liberals or conservatives showed this ‘flipped’ voting preference. Our interpretation of these findings is guided by our general assumption that human behavior is multiply determined.”
Overall, they found that higher pain sensitivity increased support for moral and political views typically exhibited by the ‘other side’ without undermining support for the morals and politics of one’s favored party.
“It’s not that their profile of moral sensitivities shifts from ‘only supporting our side’ to ‘only supporting the other side’,” Lee said. “Instead, they tend to be more supportive of both sides’ views.”
Although the study’s findings don’t provide a solution to finding the middle ground in a politically polarized society, they highlight a previously unexplored influence on people’s political views, suggesting they’re guided by emotions and moral feelings.
“The better we understand the bases of a person’s moral feelings, the better we can explain and predict their political views,” said Lee.
The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition.