Perceptual bias in pain: A switch looks closer when it will relieve pain than when it won't

Abby Tabor, Mark J. Catley, Simon Gandevia, Michael A. Thacker, G. Lorimer Moseley*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Pain is fundamental to survival, as are our perceptions of the environment. It is often assumed that we see our world as a read-out of the sensory information that we receive; yet despite the same physical makeup of our surroundings, individuals perceive differently. What if we "see" our world differently when we experience pain? Until now, the causal effect of experimental pain on the perception of an external stimulus has not been investigated. Eighteen (11 female) healthy volunteers participated in this randomised repeated-measures experiment, in which participants estimated the distance to a switch placed on the table in front of them. We varied whether or not the switch would instantly stop a stimulus, set to the participant's pain threshold, being delivered to their hand, and whether or not they were required to reach for the switch. The critical result was a strong interaction between reaching and pain [F(1, 181) = 4.8, P = 0.03], such that when participants experienced pain and were required to reach for a switch that would turn off the experimental stimulus, they judged the distance to that switch to be closer, as compared to the other 3 conditions (mean of the true distance 92.6%, 95% confidence interval 89.7%-95.6%). The judged distance was smaller than estimates in the other 3 conditions (mean +/- SD difference >5.7% +/- 2.1%, t(181) >3.5, P <0.01 for all 3 comparisons). We conclude that the perception of distance to an object is modulated by the behavioural relevance of the object to ongoing pain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1961-1965
Number of pages5
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2013


  • Pain
  • Survival
  • Perception
  • Preconscious processing
  • Vision
  • HAND
  • FEAR


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