On Ash Wednesday, it’s good to feel the pain

Ash Wednesday marks a day of sacrifice and penance for Christians in order to atone for sins. The theology of the idea coincides nicely with psychology. Feeling pain, it seems, really cleanses the mind of guilty burdens, according to a new study.

Australian researchers tested the idea of whether pain and sacrifice ease guilt. They recruited 62 young men and women under the guise that they were part of a study on mental and physical acuity. The participants were asked to write a short essay about a time when they had ostracized someone. A control group of participants wrote about a routine event. Some of the participants were then asked to stick a hand in a bucket of ice water and hold it there for as long as possible while the other half of the subjects were asked to hold a hand in warm water. All the participants then rated the pain they had just experienced and completed a questionnaire on their emotions -- including guilt.

The study showed that the people who wrote about ostracizing someone subjected themselves to more pain (in the form of a hand held in ice water), rated the experience as more painful and then felt more relief from guilt compared with the participants of the other groups.

Pain may be physical, but humans give it emotional meaning, the authors said. We equate it with punishment and justice. Indeed, the Latin word for pain is poena, which means “to pay the penalty.”


“Our results suggest that the experience of pain has psychological currency in rebalancing the scales of justice,” wrote the authors, from the Universities of Queensland.

The study was published Tuesday in the journal Psychological Science.

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