Feeling the pain? Put on a friendly face

Politeness and social niceties undoubtedly make life more pleasant — and according to a new study published in the journal Pain, they could also help you get better treatment from your doctor.

For the study, researchers from Ghent University in Belgium asked 40 men and women (none of whom were health professionals) to review photos of a half dozen patients that were labelled either with negative traits (egoistical, hypocritical, or arrogant), neutral traits (reserved or conventional), or positive traits (faithful, honest, or friendly).

Participants were then asked to watch short videos of the same six patients undergoing a standard physiotherapy assessment for shoulder pain. Afterward, they were asked to rate the level of pain each of the patients was experiencing.

The results? The patients with a positive attitude were thought to be in more serious pain than the ones with a bad attitude, even if the level of pain was the same. More likeable people, in other words, were taken more seriously when they said they were in pain. Those with perceived negative personality traits often found their pain ignored or underrated.

So does this mean that health care professionals would have the same bias toward patients, favouring the nice ones? Researchers think it likely. “These findings suggest that we take the pain of patients we do not like less seriously than the pain of patients we like,” they wrote in the study abstract.

Dr. Brian Goldman, an emergency room physician and prominent medical journalist, tends to agree. “While it’s true that we receive special training, we’re only human. We respond to the same emotional cues as everyone else,” he wrote in an article on CBC.ca.

According to Goldman, disliked patients are more likely to be neglected when it comes to receiving appropriate testing and follow-up appointments. They are also more likely to be victims of medical errors.

So perhaps when it comes to getting the best medical care, nice guys don’t finish last.

Additional sources: National Institutes of Health; CBC; New York Times

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Willie B. Thomas

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