The role of motivation in distracting attention away from pain: an experimental study

Katrien Verhoeven*, Geert Crombez, Christopher Eccleston, Dimitri M L Van Ryckeghem, Stephen Morley, Stefaan Van Damme

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

95 Citations (Web of Science)


Research on the effectiveness of distraction as a method of pain control is inconclusive. One mechanism pertains to the motivational relevance of distraction tasks. In this study the motivation to engage in a distraction task during pain was experimentally manipulated. Undergraduate students (N=73) participated in a cold pressor test (CPT) and were randomly assigned to three groups: a distraction-only group performed a tone-detection task during the CPT, a motivated-distraction group performed the same task and received a monetary reward for good task performance, and a control group did not perform the tone-detection task. Results indicated that engagement in the distraction task was better in the motivated-distraction group in comparison with the distraction-only group. Participants in both distraction groups experienced less pain compared to the control group. There were no overall differences in pain intensity between the two distraction groups. The effect of distraction was influenced by the level of catastrophic thinking about pain. For low catastrophizers, both distraction groups reported less pain as compared to the non-distracted control group. This was not the case for high catastrophizers. For high catastrophizers it mattered whether the distraction task was motivationally relevant: high catastrophizers reported less intense pain in the motivated-distraction group, as compared to the non-distracted control group. We conclude that increasing the motivational relevance of the distraction task may increase the effects of distraction, especially for those who catastrophize about pain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)229-34
Number of pages6
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adolescent
  • Anxiety/etiology
  • Attention/physiology
  • Behavior Therapy/methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motivation/physiology
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Pain/psychology
  • Pain Management
  • Pain Measurement/methods
  • Pain Threshold/psychology
  • Perception/physiology
  • Stress, Psychological/etiology
  • Young Adult

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