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Motivational theories of pain highlight its role in people's choices of actions that avoid bodily damage. By contrast, little is known regarding how pain influences action implementation. To explore this less-understood area, we conducted a study in which participants had to rapidly point to a target area to win money while avoiding an overlapping penalty area that would cause pain in their contralateral hand. We found that pain intensity and target-penalty proximity repelled participants' movement away from pain and that motor execution was influenced not by absolute pain magnitudes but by relative pain differences. Our results indicate that the magnitude and probability of pain have a precise role in guiding motor control and that representations of pain that guide action are, at least in part, relative rather than absolute. Additionally, our study shows that the implicit monetary valuation of pain, like many explicit valuations (e.g., patients' use of rating scales in medical contexts), is unstable, a finding that has implications for pain treatment in clinical contexts.

Original publication




Journal article


Psychol Sci

Publication Date





840 - 847


Electroshock, Female, Humans, Male, Movement, Pain, Pain Measurement, Photic Stimulation, Psychomotor Performance, Punishment, Reaction Time, Young Adult