New study shows that people prefer physical pain to thinking too hard

This one comes from Daniel Graham, author of An Internet in Your Head: A New Paradigm for How the Brain Works and a longtime BoingBoing fan. In Psychology Today, Graham writes about another unique neuroscientific phenomenon — the act of literally thinking too hard.

In this 2020 study at McGill University, researchers invited 39 healthy young adults into a lab and gave them two options: perform a mental task (called "N-back") that involves identifying letters on a screen, or let yourself get zapped by an electric heater up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Guess which one they preferred?

The McGill researchers found that once participants had some experience of the N-back task, they much preferred guaranteed pain. In the 3-back condition—where the participant is required to compare a presented letter to one seen three letters previously—people much preferred low or moderate pain. Even when the pain was quite intense, it was still preferable in some circumstances. In the 4-back condition, around a quarter of participants skipped the mental task and chose to receive pain at a level they considered 80 percent as painful as one they judged to be extremely intense.

Given these results, we should acknowledge that focusing and making decisions is hard, and that even thoughtful people will do almost anything to escape such tasks—they will even accept guaranteed pain.

To Avoid Thinking Hard, We Will Endure Anything—Even Pain [Daniel Graham, PhD / Psychology Today]

Forced choices reveal a trade-off between cognitive effort and physical pain [Todd A Vogel, Zachary M Savelson, A Ross Otto, Mathieu Roy / Department of Psychology, McGill University, Canada; Institute of Cognitive Science, Carleton University, Canada ]

Image: Idil Keysan for the Wikimedia Foundation (CC-BY-SA 4.0)