SPA WELLNESS: The Power of Good Intentions

New studies indicate positive thinking can relieve pain.

Your good intentions don’t only communicate goodwill—they can also relieve pain, intensify pleasure and improve the taste of food, according to a study conducted by psychologist and University of Maryland assistant professor Kurt Gray.

Gray, who directs the Maryland Mind Perception and Morality Lab, and whose work appears in Social Psychological and Personality Science, wanted to see whether the power of good intentions goes beyond expected social and emotional effects to alter one’s physical experience. For Gray’s first study, three groups of participants received identical electric shocks delivered by a partner. The first group was led to believe their partners were not aware they were shocking them; the second group thought they were being shocked on purpose but for no reason; and the third group believed they were being shocked on purpose, but because their partners were trying to win them money.

The result was that people in the third, or so-called “benevolent,” group experienced significantly less pain from their shocks than those of the first two groups.

In a second experiment, people who sat in a massage chair switched on by a caring partner reported a more pleasant experience than those whose chair was operated by a computer—even though the provided massages were identical. And in Gray’s third experiment, two groups of people were given candy, with one group receiving an accompanying caring note and the other group receiving an indifferent message. The group that got the caring notes thought the candy tasted better, and even sweeter, than did the other group.

The study also implies that believing others mean well carries benefits, too. Says Gray, “To the extent that we view others as benevolent instead of malicious, the harms they inflict upon us should hurt less, and the good things they do for us should cause more pleasure.”