When painful stimuli are evaluated at the time they are experienced, judgments are made not in isolation but with reference to other experienced stimuli. We tested a specific quantitative model of how such context effects occur. Participants experienced 3 blocks of 11 different pressure pain stimuli, and rated each stimulus on a 0-10 scale of intensity. Stimulus distribution was varied between participants.
Study 1 found that that the rating of a stimulus of a particular pressure was higher in the context in which it ranked highest. Study 2 found that pain ratings were higher in a context where most stimuli were relatively intense, even when the mean stimulus was constant. It is suggested that pain judgments are relative, involve the same cognitive processes as are used in other psychophysical and socioemotional judgments, and are well described by range frequency theory. This approach can further inform the existing body of research on context-dependent pain evaluation.
- Range frequency