Social discounting of pain

Giles W. Story, Zeb Kurth-Nelson, Molly Crockett, Ivo Vlaev, Ara Darzi, Raymond J. Dolan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Impatience can be formalized as a delay discount rate, describing how the subjective value of reward decreases as it is delayed. By analogy, selfishness can be formalized as a social discount rate, representing how the subjective value of rewarding another person decreases with increasing social distance. Delay and social discount rates for reward are correlated across individuals. However no previous work has examined whether this relationship also holds for aversive outcomes. Neither has previous work described a functional form for social discounting of pain in humans. This is a pertinent question, since preferences over aversive outcomes formally diverge from those for reward. We addressed this issue in an experiment in which healthy adult participants (N = 67) chose the timing and intensity of hypothetical pain for themselves and others. In keeping with previous studies, participants showed a strong preference for immediate over delayed pain. Participants showed greater concern for pain in close others than for their own pain, though this hyperaltruism was steeply discounted with increasing social distance. Impatience for pain and social discounting of pain were weakly correlated across individuals. Our results extend a link between impatience and selfishness to the aversive domain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)308-325
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior
Issue number3
StatePublished - Nov 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • altruism
  • delay discounting
  • dread
  • humans
  • kin
  • pain
  • social discounting


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