As Edward Munch seemed to intuit, dread is its own kind of pain.
The Value of Dread
by Andreas Olsson
Columbia University, New York, N.Y..
Time is precious -- not so much for itself but for what we can do with it. Thus we try to make time to spend on things that we like, such as cuddling with a loved one, while minimizing time wasted doing things less pleasant, such as having a blood sample taken.
Economists call this practice maximizing the positive value (utility) and minimizing the negative value (disutility) of our experiences. Traditional economic models of behavior have focused mainly on the perceived value of the expected outcome -- the embrace or the needle prick. They've also assumed that people discount an outcome's value according to its distance in the future. In other words, the longer the wait, the less I should care about the outcome. By this thinking, people should want to expedite desirable outcomes and delay undesirable ones -- maximizing positive value and discounting negative value.
In "Neurobiological Substrates of Dread," Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns and colleagues add to a growing body of research showing that people behave precisely contrary to this prediction -- they delay the pleasant and speed up the unpleasant. How is that?
Putting a Charge into Decision Making
This is not the first time economic theory has clashed with reality, or that psychology or neuroscience have helped to resolve such divergences. In this case, actually, it is common knowledge that waiting for an outcome can be as substantial an experience as the outcome itself: looking forward to a vacation or a good meal brings its own pleasure, and dreading a root canal constitutes its own torture. This reaction is completely consistent with the idea that what we do with our time is important; it also recognizes that the doing can involve both the outcome and its anticipation.
But what exactly is happening in the brain during such waiting periods? That's the question Berns and his colleagues address here, using a new model for studying anticipation. Wielding a brain scanner, a stopwatch and a device for shocking toes, Burns and his colleagues pin down specific brain functions underlying a critical aspect of the anticipation of an aversive event -- what the researchers call "dread" -- and explore how these brain responses relate to peoples' decisions about unpleasant outcomes.
Berns and his colleagues used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technique to scan the brains of their subjects as they completed a classical conditioning procedure in which cues are followed by electric shocks administered to the feet. This procedure has often been used to study aversive learning and the anticipation and experience of pain. Berns and company, however, added some new elements. For starters, they included in their pre-shock cues the strength of the shock to come, expressed as a proportion of the maximum shock level the subjects' could withstand, which was determined in a separate session before the start of the experiment. The cues also told the subject how long a delay, in seconds, would pass before the shock was delivered. Thus one cue might warn about a shock that would deliver 30 percent of the subject's maximum tolerance in 27 seconds, and another of a 60 percent shock coming in nine seconds.
This produced expected results. As in previous pain studies, the research team found a network of brain regions, referred to as the 'pain matrix,' a set of areas known to be involved in pain-related attention and sensation. This pain matrix increased its activity continuously throughout the wait, reaching a maximum when the shock was delivered. Waiting for pain is its own kind of pain.
Choose Your Pain
Those results essentially confirmed previous studies. New in this study, however, was the inclusion of a second round of tasks in which the subjects had to choose between two different combinations of shock magnitude and delay. For example, a subject might have to choose between receiving a 30 percent shock in 27 seconds or a 60 percent shock in nine seconds. The subject then received the chosen combination of shock and delay.
As expected, most subjects chose a shorter wait if offered two equal shock magnitudes. Some subjects, however, were willing to "pay" for a shorter waiting time by taking a higher shock. The researchers classified these people as "extreme dreaders" and the others -- those not willing to take extra shocks to reduce the wait -- as "mild dreaders."
Now came the interesting part: using the brain scans, the researchers could now relate the individual subjects' brain responses during the waiting time in the first task (where they had no decision to make, but merely waited for a shock) to their subsequent preferences in the decision task. They found that extreme dreaders showed more activity in the pain matrix during the wait than mild dreaders did. The result suggested, said the investigators, that attention to the sensory qualities of the shock is an important ingredient in the increased experience of dread.
One of the great advantages of this study is that it could lead to a correlation between the making of real decisions about real outcomes and specific patterns of brain activation. Much current research on decision making presents subjects with abstract situations in which decisions concern hypothetical outcomes -- although an increasing body of research shows that learning and decision making depend greatly on the concreteness of the information involved. And sure enough: a decision about how big a shock to get and how soon to get it appears to involve a different set of brain areas and factors than does a decision based on verbal information about "magnitude" and "delay."
Even this study, however, is remote from the complexity of decision making in the world at large. Real-life decisions almost always involve some degree of uncertainty, which increases with the time to the outcome. There is often little to lose in postponing something unpleasant and hoping it will never occur. Outside the lab, anyway, few things are certain until they happen.
Yet this study makes a strong case that dread is an integral part of any unpleasant anticipated event, and that this effect must be accounted for when estimating an outcome's value. Doubtless we can anticipate some rewarding results as researchers explore how people avoid or manage such dread.
Andreas Olsson is a postdoctoral fellow at the Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience Unit at Columbia University, where he studies how cognitive goals and strategies affect emotional processes involved in perceiving and learning from others..
Words: No Safer Than Sticks and Stones
by Scott Rick
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Penn.
Information is intrinsically worthless and has value strictly for its ability to improve decision making -- so, at least, many contemporary economists would have us believe. Contrary to this economic perspective, however, Berns and colleagues find that people who choose higher levels of pain soon over lower levels of pain later (extreme dreaders) experience more pain while anticipating impending shocks than do mild dreaders, who choose lower levels of distal pain over high levels of proximal pain. Although causality remains to be established (that extreme and mild dreaders differ in the anticipatory pain they experience does not necessarily mean that anticipatory pain influences their choices), the results raise the possibility that the pain people derive from information influences decision making.
A look around any supermarket checkout aisle or the Internet shows this is not the only scenario in which people directly "consume" information. People routinely expend costly resources (time as well as money) to obtain information, regardless of its potential to inform decision making. Consider, for instance, the ubiquity of quizzes promising to diagnose virtually any aspect of one's personality. An iVillage page
devoted solely to quizzes currently offers to diagnose everything from one's "vending machine smarts" to the extent to which one qualifies as a "style diva." By contrast, information that would actually aid decision making (medical test results, for example) is frequently avoided. People may shun such crucial tests because learning of a condition that will cause great pain down the road is itself an intensely excruciating moment. Dread, as the Berns study suggests, is something people will take pains to avoid.
Although some information can easily be predicted to produce dread, some research suggests that people often have the wrong intuition about how information will influence their behavior and emotions. For example, some research
[pdf] shows that people will pay to obtain information that leads them actually to make worse predictions than they would had they remained uninformed. Likewise, curiosity often motivates us to undertake a costly search for information that, once obtained, fails to deliver pleasure. At other times we incorrectly believe that obtaining information will preclude pleasure: se avoid watching taped sporting events after we know the outcome, for instance, because our intuition is that the experience will be anti-climatic, but recent research suggests that the experience is surprisingly enjoyable.
Counterintuitively, then, we sometimes treat harmful information as desirable, and harmless information as undesirable. Understanding when and why this dichotomy occurs is an important task for future research.
Scott Rick is a doctoral student at the Carnegie Mellon Department of Social and Decision Sciences, where he is investigating how both emotion and learned principles affect consumer behavior and other areas of decision making.
Edited by David Dobbs at 01/02/2008 8:26 AM
Edited by David Dobbs at 01/02/2008 8:30 AM