Why Do We Sometimes Choose To Suffer Even When We Could Avoid It?

Why Do We Sometimes Choose To Suffer Even When We Could Avoid It?

Studies show that it is very easy to psychologically manipulate people to “choose to suffer,” such as by eating worms or enduring electric shocks, without much reason for doing so and even when they could avoid it.

In a classic experiment, subjects were first led to expect that they would have to eat worms in order for a minor positive consequence to occur that had little bearing upon themselves (the experiment would be designated by officials as a “success”). That was all it took for many subjects to eat the worms. For subjects who held out, they were told that there was no way they could escape eating worms without a minor negative consequence taking place that also had little bearing upon themselves (the experiment would be terminated). This brought more subjects around so that few now resisted eating the worms. But what happened next was surprising. After resigning themselves to eating worms and just before doing so, subjects were offered a choice between eating worms and performing a simple “non-aversive” task as an alternative. Most subjects chose to eat the worms anyway! The researchers were astonished that most of the subjects “elected to suffer.”

In another classic experiment, subjects voluntarily administered electric shocks to themselves at varying voltages for the dubious gain of being told that they would become better test-takers in such experiments. Subjects risked their lives and health after merely being told that to do otherwise would result in their being “likely to end up alone later in life.” Strange what we do, is it not? For many, the price of suffering is cheap.

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