First-of-it’s-kind study finds income rank is linked to experience of physical pain

A new study of worldwide polling data suggests that a person’s income relative to their peers is linked to their experience of physical pain, with a lower income rank linked to a higher likelihood of experiencing pain – the first time such a relationship has been shown.

The study found the link to persist, to the same degree, irrespective of whether the person lives in a rich country or a poor country.

painting of man

Income rank is the position of an individual’s absolute personal income amount in a list of those amounts ordered from lowest to highest. The higher the position in the list, the higher the income rank.

The study, authored by Dr Lucía Macchia, Lecturer in Psychology at City University in London, also suggests that people in poor countries fare no better than those living in rich countries when it comes to the effect of the absolute amount of their personal income on the likelihood of them experiencing pain.

This was an unexpected finding and requires further investigation, as the prediction was that those in poorer countries would be more strongly affected, assuming that an increase in absolute income would allow them to obtain more resources to support their wellbeing that are more readily available in rich countries.

Overall, the findings suggest that an overriding factor affecting a person’s pain levels based on their personal income could be negative emotions related to their appraisal of their income ranking compared to their peers.

In the study, analyses were made of data from the annual World Gallup Poll from 2009 to 2018, consisting of responses from around 1.3m adults from 146 countries. Respondents were asked what their total monthly household income was before taxes, which was divided by the number of people in their household to derive the respondent’s personal income amount. Respondents were also asked whether they experienced physical pain the day before being surveyed to which they could respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In the analyses, linear regression models were created from these data in addition to further ancillary information.

This study refers to pain as the feeling that people experience when their body hurts regardless of the presence of physical damage.

Physical pain has been increasing dramatically in recent decades, becoming a priority for global public health. Pain affects leisure and productivity at work, increases healthcare costs, and represents a major challenge for healthcare systems. Pain plays a key role in suicide and in drug and alcohol misuse. In light of these circumstances, understanding the context of pain is crucial to addressing its consequences.

Dr Macchia said: ‘This is the first study that shows that income rank and pain are linked around the world. It suggests that psychological factors related to the well-known phenomenon of social comparison may influence people’s physical pain.’

The study is published online in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Image: Aarón Blanco Tejedor


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