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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Uncertainty, regret, and psychological pain : why it hurts to be unsure Benjamin, Rachele


Theorists have noted that social rejection, uncertainty, error evaluation, regret, and cognitive dissonance all activate the same neural substrate as physical pain; specifically, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Furthermore, studies have shown that acetaminophen, a painkiller that is used to treat aches and pains, attenuates sensitivity to social pain, as well as uncertainty and dissonance. Together, these findings suggest that there is a relationship between physically and psychologically painful experiences. However, there is little evidence that various distinct sources of psychological distress increase sensitivity to physical pain, as we would expect given that they have a common neural basis. In study 1, I explored the hypothesis that psychological pain is physically painful by investigating purchases of over-the-counter painkillers. I found that Americans are more likely to purchase painkillers during uncertain times. In study 2, I investigated whether uncertainty leads to increased sensitivity to physical pain in a cold pressor task. Using this procedure, I was unable to find evidence that uncertainty increases sensitivity to physical pain. I suggest various alternative approaches to the study of pain and uncertainty. In study 3, I explored the relationship between physical pain and a new candidate for psychological pain: regret. I determined whether acetaminophen attenuates people’s experience of regret, a psychological experience that is conceptually similar to dissonance and error evaluation. I did not find evidence that acetaminophen attenuates people’s responses to regret. Therefore, I propose a number of future directions for the study of regret, uncertainty, and physical pain.

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