Giving up a bad habit for Lent may cleanse your soul if you're religious, or at least make you feel a lot less guilty if you're not.
That's the upshot of research from the University of Queensland that's found a little bit of self-inflicted pain goes a long way to relieving the psychological burden of immoral behaviour.
History is littered with examples of ritualised pain in exchange for a pure soul. Examples include, wearing hair shirts, which were popular in medieval times; self flagellation, which is practiced by a number of religious faiths; and festivals of repentance and sacrifice such as Lent and Ramadan. Even the word 'pain' is derived from the Latin word 'poena', which means 'pay the penalty'.
The researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that people seek out pain as a response to their own immoral behaviour. The process of penance by pain isn't just restricted to a particular religion or religious practice. It can also apply to behaviours such as fasting, intense exercise, even work, in response to guilt, says Dr Brock Bastian, lead author of the study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science.
"All of these practices where you put yourself through hardship obviously must have a psychological function," says Bastian. "It would be strange to think that we would continue a practice that was of absolutely no benefit to us psychologically at all."
"The fact that we found [punishment] actually reduced guilt was the most intriguing part of our research," Bastian says.
"We're actually showing that pain does something good for us."
Guilt increased feeling of pain
The researchers recruited a group of 62 young men and women under the guise that they were participating in a task that focused on mental acuity. They were then placed into three groups.
The first two groups were asked to write about a time when they had rejected or socially excluded another person. Then the participants were told that they were to participate in a task that tested their physical acuity.
The first group, and a third group that had written about an everyday interaction with another person, were instructed to plunge their non-dominant hands into a bucket of ice water up to their elbow for as long as they could. Meanwhile, the second group was instructed to dip their hands into a soothing bucket of warm water (between 36°C and 38°C) while performing a simple task.
The participants rated how much pain they experienced and to score the morality of their actions on the 'mental acuity' task.
Participants who wrote about an unethical behaviour not only held their hands in ice water longer, but also rated the experience as more painful than did participants who wrote about an everyday interaction.
"So it wasn't that they were numb to pain, or they didn't experience pain, they experienced pain more because they wanted to, and held their hands in there longer," explains Bastian.
Making sense of pain
He says the research helps us understand how people make sense of pain.
Self-inflicted pain can be used as a penance to right the judicial scales, it can be a way of communicating remorse to others (or God if you are religious), or it can demonstrate the romantic notion that punishment is a test of one's virtue, says Bastian.
But Bastian says it isn't possible to know from the study whether the participants' response to pain is due to cultural or religious influences or a primal response. Or whether people with different cultural backgrounds would react differently.
"Is it something that is being fed to them through a culture that has Christian values embedded, or is it a more basic thing?," he asks.
"There are reasons to suspect that it is more basic. We often use our early experiences of the world to make sense of higher concepts and I think the link between punishment and pain is something that is very hard to disentangle."