Cold pressor pain reduces phobic fear but fear does not reduce pain

GJ Hollin, Stuart Derbyshire

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

7 Citations (Scopus)


Negative emotion has a variable effect on pain perception. This variability has been explained by the motivational priming hypothesis (MPH) which predicts that emotional stimuli generating low levels of arousal will facilitate pain, while stimuli generating high levels of arousal will inhibit pain. However, a study by Sneddon et al with rainbow trout discovers a relationship not found in the human literature, that fear-related behavior decreased in the presence of a nociceptive stimulus. The current experiment examined this possibility in humans. In Experiment 1, 30 healthy, female subjects with "at least a mild aversion to spiders" participated in 3 trials: 1 in which a Brazilian salmon pink tarantula was present; a second with the right hand immersed in a cold pressor; and a third with both the tarantula and the cold pressor present. Experiment 2 added distance as an extra variable to this methodology. In both experiments it was found that spider presence had no impact upon pain perception but spider fear was reduced by the cold pressor. There was no interaction between trial and either time or distance. These findings are novel in human subjects and not well accounted for by the MPH. We suggest that an explicitly evolutionary framework should be adopted, and that spider fear was reduced to facilitate escape from the more threatening cold-pressor experience. PERSPECTIVE: This study examined the relationship between pain and fear. Subjects with an aversion to spiders sat next to a tarantula with their right hand in iced water. Subjects reported reduced fear but no change in pain. Consequently, the authors reevaluate the Motivational Priming Hypothesis and emphasize evolutionarily determined threat values.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1058-64
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Pain
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2009


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