Introduction: Research on learning in placebo and nocebo has relied predominantly on Pavlovian conditioning procedures. Operant learning procedures may more accurately model learning in real-life situations in which placebo and nocebo effects occur.
Objectives: To investigate the development and persistence of placebo and nocebo effects using an operant avoidance learning task.
Methods: Pain-free participants (n = 58) could learn to avoid pain by performing movements that differed in difficulty and intensity of painful stimulation. Participants performed movements in 2 contexts. In the high cost of avoidance context, pain stimulus intensity reduced with increasing movement difficulty. In the low cost of avoidance context, contingencies were reversed. Participants rated pain expectations and pain intensity. During test, movement difficulties were unchanged, but participants always received a medium-intensity pain stimulus. Placebo and nocebo effects were defined as lower/higher pain intensity ratings for trajectories that previously resulted in low/high-intensity compared with medium-intensity stimulation.
Results: As expected, participants acquired differential movement-pain expectations and differential movement choices. Testing with a medium-intensity pain stimulus quickly erased differences in movement choice across contexts, but differences in pain expectations were maintained. Pain modulation across context was in line with movement-pain expectations. However, we only observed placebo effects within the low cost of avoidance context and found no evidence of nocebo effects.
Conclusion: Operant learning can change pain expectations, pain modulation, and pain-related avoidance behavior. Persisting pain expectations suggest that acquired pain beliefs may be resistant to disconfirmation, despite self-initiated experience with novel pain-movement contingencies.