Karolina Michalczewska (BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science) explores some of the psychological and evolutionary reasons why we seek out unpleasant experiences.
Imagine yourself watching a horror movie – you are sitting on the edge of your seat, terrified, anticipating the killer will kill the main character, but may perhaps just jump out of the TV screen and kill you as well.
Or try to remember those times you felt sad and played your saddest playlist just to make yourself cry.
All these things have one thing in common – they are horrible, painful, unpleasant, sad, scary. And yet, we like them.
Are we all masochists?
What we experience is something called hedonic reversal – perceiving an experience that is unpleasant, as pleasurable. What’s more is that we like to elicit these feelings ourselves, which makes us what researchers call “benign masochists”.
But this doesn’t look right from an evolutionary perspective, does it? After all, good experiences tend to be the safe ones that correlate with survival, so they should be the ones that are desirable. So, why do we seek bad feelings? And most importantly, why do we enjoy them?
There seem to be two theories to answer these questions: the opponent process theory and the coactivation/distancing theory.
Opponent Process Theory: Striking a balance
In his 1980 paper, Richard Solomon explained how pain can turn into pleasure, and vice versa. He called this the opponent process theory of acquired motivation – the notion that for each pleasant/unpleasant process, another, opposite reaction will subsequently be activated. In this way, the body achieves a sort of balance. For example, when a person visits a horror house, the initial feeling they experience (Solomon calls this State A) is terror. And yet, after the tour of the horror house ends, hedonic reversal happens, and the person feels an extreme amount of pleasure (State B). What’s more is that State B usually lasts longer than State A, which would explain why humans keep engaging in unpleasant experiences – perhaps it’s simply worthwhile to experience some pain in order to feel pleasure later.
Emotionally, the opponent process theory could be linked to relief – as the negative stimulus is removed, pleasant feelings emerge simply because we are happy to not be experiencing that stimulus anymore (Andrade & Cohen, 2007). We not only still remember the pain, but are still aroused by it, and that arousal becomes reversed into pleasure – there is a transfer of excitation.
Biologically speaking, opponent process theory is what maintains balance (homeostasis) and prevents over-reactions in the body. For example, when some people run, their brains produce so many endorphins and other chemicals to make up for the pain in their legs that they experience a sudden sense of euphoria – the runner’s high.
Coactivation/Distancing Theory: Keeping a safe distance
In 1982, Rozin, Ebert and Schull conducted a study where they asked participants to rate the pleasantness of oral sensations while eating chili peppers. It turned out that some participants enjoyed the sensation of the burn itself, even if it was isolated from other flavours.
Opponent process theory suggests that it should be the removal of the chili that would cause the pleasure. Rozin, therefore, proposed another theory. He stated that the unpleasant/pleasant feelings do not follow each other subsequently but are rather coactivated at the same time (Rozin and colleagues, 2013). Chili, the negative stimulus, activates the pain, but it is the cognitive distancing from the stimulus – realizing that the spiciness isn’t actually real danger – that causes the pleasure at the same time. Similarly, horror fans like horrors only because the monsters on the screen aren’t real, so the fear they induce is felt within a safe context. In this case, the relief comes not from removing the stimulus, but removing the perception of the danger of the stimulus. At the same time, humans still like to engage in negative experiences, either because of sensation seeking, or because they see the opportunity to vicariously learn (for example, horror video games teach players how to survive in a stressful situation).
The evolution of hedonic reversal
The distancing theory makes sense from an evolutionary perspective – the individuals who were able to recognize which negative stimuli could be harmful and didn’t waste their energy on avoiding the unharmful ones were more likely to pass on their genes. At the same time, the pleasure they experienced when they realized that there’s no real danger was, simply, the pleasure of survival. Similarly, the biological balance that the opponent process theory suggests also seems to have evolutionary roots because it is energy efficient not to become over-stimulated.
Despite these two general theories for why people experience hedonic reversal, in each case there are also specific explanations for specific behaviours. For example, yes, perhaps people enjoy eating chili peppers because their cognition allows them to recognize the pain that they are feeling isn’t actually a threat. However, perhaps they like doing it because they observed by looking at others (through social learning) that individuals who eat them tend to be healthier, as spices are antimicrobial. Or perhaps, they learned to like the spiciness because in their culture, eating chili is associated with strength; or because the mere exposure to chili made them get used to the taste.
Taking into account evolution or culture does not explain why there are individual differences in how much people like to engage in hedonic reversal inducing behaviours. Why do some love horror movies, while others hate them?
Perhaps the answer lies in personality. For example, Rozin and colleagues (2013) found a correlation between the affinity to hedonic reversal and sensation seeking. Sensation seekers tend to look for intense feelings, be more behavior focused and less negatively affected by stress, so they enjoy high arousal activities.
When it comes to horror or sad movies, another factor that could play a role in how much enjoyment people are getting from negative feelings is empathy. There is also a gender difference, with women being more likely to enjoy sad films than men (Rozin and colleagues, 2013), and men enjoying horror more (Martin, 2019).
With so many theories and factors coming into play, it is impossible to give a universal reason for why pain sometimes becomes pleasure. So, the next time you catch yourself paying extra for that chili sauce in your burrito, or feeling a weird relief after popping a pimple, or putting on “Titanic” even though you know it makes you ugly cry, think back to this article and ask yourself: why?
- The views expressed in this post are of the author and not the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science or London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
- Featured blog post image by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
- Image of red chillies via Pexels
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