Pain Tolerance and Impulsivity

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Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Laura Sinville, Psychology


A strong connection between biology and personality was established in the case of Phineas Gage (Harlow, 1993). To my knowledge, no one has examined a relationship between pain tolerance, a concept with strong biological ties, and impulsivity, a personality trait. This is especially interesting because impulsive individuals typically have a personality characterized by fearlessness, sensation seeking, and "with a tendency toward acting without forethought, making quick cognitive decisions and failing to appreciate circumstance beyond the here-and now" (Barratt, 1085). Another reason the lack of research in this area is surprising is because of the activity of the vagus nerve. The vangus nerve enacts parasympathetic control over the heart. When the nerve's activity is increased, resting heart rate decreases. Impulsive individuals have been found to have4 a lower resting heart rate and therefore a more active vangus nerve (Mathias and Stanford, 2003; Scarpa and Ollendick, 2004). A previous link has been established between the vagus nerve and pain tolerance (Ness et al, 2000). For these reasons it was predicted that pain tolerance would be positively correlated with impulsivity. Participants were recruited from a college sample and were excluded if they had used caffeine or nicotine the day of the appointment, suffered from Reynaud's Syndrome, or had a history of burns/frostbite. Using a cold pressor task, each participant's pain tolerance, pain threshold, and pain perception were measured. The hypothesis was not supported; however, a negative correlation was found in men between pain tolerance and motor impulsivity. Significant differences were also found between men and women in pain tolerance and pain rating.