The Dread Zone: Anticipating Pain

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by: Roger Dooley

For some people, anticipating pain can be as bad as the real thing. Dread can be a real pain describes research conducted by Dr. Gregory Berns of Emory University.

The research is part of the emerging field of neuroeconomics, which addresses the neuroscience of decision making. The work found that some “extreme dreaders” were willing to suffer more pain if it happened immediately vs. waiting a period of time for a lesser pain level. (The “pain” was a fairly mild electric shock which at worst was comparable to a needle jab.) Other individuals who experienced less dread did the logical thing and took the lighter shock even if they had to wait for it.

The brain activity measured during the anticipation phase was actually occuring in the brain’s pain center, according to fMRI used to show dread responses in brain:

The scans showed that brain activity related to dread was localized in the areas of the brain associated with pain. Dread was found in the parts of the pain network linked to attention. This is important because it suggests that dread is not as simple as fear or anxiety, which are emotions controlled by different brain regions.


The findings also showed that the mild and extreme dreaders had different patterns of brain activity. The extreme dreaders had more activity in the attentional parts of the pain matrix, and this activity was seen much earlier in each trial compared to the mild dreaders.

Marketers have long used graphic representations of pain in advertisements. Research on whether an ad can trigger similar dread feelings or create activity in the same pain centers hasn’t been published yet, but it seems likely. Between mirror neurons “simulating” an observed (or even heard) action by another, and pain centers being triggered by thinking about future pain, it’s clear that marketers may have the opportunity to create discomfort among their targets. We see quite a few mild examples of this (e.g., an actor engaging in a common activity and grimacing in pain due to arthritis) as well as some not so mild ones (e.g., Lamisil’s little fungus creature lifting up a toenail… owwww!)

This potential ability to trigger a pain response should be used carefully. Done well, it will probably reinforce the verbal/written content of the ad and perhaps improve recall of the brand and message. Done poorly, it may alienate viewers and/or create a negative association with the brand that will carry all the way to the point of purchase. The Lamisil toenail lifter makes me cringe… but if I had to buy a foot fungicide, would I choose the brand I remember (Lamisil) or another one that is less memorable and more neutral in association? I’ll have to get back to you on that if I’m ever unlucky enough to develop such an affliction. In the meantime, I’d advise advertisers to be aware of the reality of pain anticipation and to use painful imagery with caution.

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