When pain becomes uncontrollable: an experimental analysis of the impact of instructions on pain-control attempts

Ama Kissi*, Sean Hughes, Dimitri Van Ryckeghem, Jan De Houwer, Geert Crombez

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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ABSTRACT: Under some conditions, people persist in their attempts to control their pain even when no such control is possible. Theory suggests that such pain-control attempts arise from actual pain experiences. Across 3 experiments we examined how (1) losing control over pain and (2) instructions concerning pain, moderated pain-control attempts. In each experiment, participants completed a learning task. Before the task, one group of participants received instructions outlining a strategy through which they could control pain, whereas another group had to develop such a strategy through trial-and-error learning. During the first half of the task, the pain-control instructions allowed participants to successfully control pain, whereas during the second half of the task, this was no longer the case. Instead, participants lost control over pain because of an unannounced change in the learning task. Results indicated that when participants lost control over pain, they generally stuck to the previously effective pain-control strategy, and that this tendency was larger if they received instructions from others than when they developed a strategy by themselves. These findings suggest that when pain is no longer controllable, very persistent pain-control attempts might be the result of adherence to previously effective pain-control instructions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)760-769
Number of pages10
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2021


  • Pain-avoidance
  • Pain-control
  • Instructions
  • Pliance
  • Tracking

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