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How to ease the sting with good intentions

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Is a root canal less painful when your dentist is kind rather than aloof? Does your dinner at a restaurant taste better when the waitress is genuinely nice versus smiling for the tip?

New research seems to suggest that yes, the good intentions of others can alter your perception of pain, how foods taste, how much you enjoy a gift and how relaxing a massage feels.  

"The way we read another person's intentions changes our physical experience of the world," said Dr. Kurt Gray, assistant professor at the University of Maryland and author of the new study published in the online version of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In his study, Gray wanted to test whether a person’s good intentions can ease or improve your experience.  The reverse has already been shown--that malicious intent can worsen pain and experiences.

The study consisted of three experiments.  In the first, three groups received electric shocks by a partner. People in the first group thought they were being shocked accidentally, without their partner's awareness.  The second group thought they were being shocked on purpose, for no good reason.  The third group also thought they were being shocked on purpose, but because another person was trying to help them win money.  Participants in the third group—the "benevolent" group—experienced significantly less pain than people in the other groups.

In the second experiment, people who sat in an electric massage chair felt more comfort when the chair was operated by a caring partner rather than being controlled by a computer. And in the third experiment, subjects were given candy with a note attached.  In one group, it read: "I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy."  In the other group, it 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 tasted significantly sweeter.

So what are the implications of this study?

• When relating to your partner or friends, make sure the person knows you care.  "Just doing nice things is not enough, you have to let them know that you really want them to benefit from your actions,” said Gray.  Even small gestures will become more meaningful if you say or act like you really care.  

• If you’re helping a sick family member, don’t just deliver tea to their bedside. Say something to let them know you care about them, you feel badly that they’re sick and you want them to get better soon. Likewise, if you have to give a yucky medicine to a child or they need a vaccine, reassure them you’re doing it for their best interest, and you are there for them.

• On the receiving end, try to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they mean well. "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," Gray wrote in his study.

• If you’re a health care provider, a better bedside manner can actually make people feel less pain.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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