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Access Type

WSU Access

Date of Award

January 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Annmarie Cano






May 2018

Advisor: Dr. Annmarie Cano

Major: Psychology (Clinical)

Degree: Master of Arts

The purpose of this study was to examine whether empathy from a romantic partner can benefit an individual with acute pain. The first objective was to replicate prior findings (e.g., Leong et al., 2015) that a perspective-taking instruction leads to increased feelings of empathy and concern in observing partners, as well as reduced pain severity in partners in pain during a cold pressor task. The second objective was to identify the behaviors that account for this effect, as previous studies were not able to answer this clinically relevant question. In line with prior findings and intimacy theories, participants whose partner received the perspective-taking manipulation were expected to report lower pain severity compared to a control group. Groups were expected to differ regarding quantity of helpful and unhelpful observer behaviors and feelings of validation, which were expected to account for group differences in pain experience. A sample of 122 undergraduate romantic couples participated. Both partners completed baseline questionnaires, then one partner was randomly assigned to complete the cold pressor task while the other partner sat close by and observed or interacted freely. Prior to the task, couples were randomly assigned to one of two groups: 1) an empathy group (n = 60) in which observers were privately instructed to take the perspective of the pain participant, or 2) a control group (n = 62) in which observers received only basic task instructions. Afterward, both partners completed post-task surveys, then pain participants completed a video recall task in which they watched a video of themselves completing the cold pressor task and identified partner behaviors that were helpful or unhelpful to them in the moment. This video recall task was unique to the current study and replaced the coding system used in the Leong et al. (2015) study, which perhaps failed to capture or correctly interpret nuanced interactions between partners. Though there were no group differences in pain severity, pain participants in the empathy group identified more helpful observer behaviors and fewer unhelpful behaviors. When collapsing across groups, pain participants who received more supportive behaviors during the cold pressor task felt more understood by their partners and had lower pain severity, whereas those who received more unhelpful behaviors felt less understood. Pain participants’ and observers’ perceptions of observer empathy during the task were also related to lower pain severity and greater pain tolerance. The results from this study support prior findings and intimacy process models, indicating that empathic feelings and behaviors from a romantic partner function to improve acute pain. Interventions for reducing pain, therefore, should aim to increase supportive behaviors and reduce unhelpful ones from romantic partners, family members, and even healthcare professionals. Further research is needed to develop robust perspective-taking instructions for partners that consistently promote better pain outcomes and to elucidate the specific types of helpful and unhelpful behaviors that are linked to lower pain.

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