This Week in Research: The Pain + Blame Edition

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In this series, we look at the newest findings coming out of our area’s top research universities. We’ve got some great minds in Baltimore — let’s learn what they’re learning!

Chronic pain is the sort of thing that follows sufferers around all day, always tapping them on the shoulder to remind them of its presence:  Hey, I’m here, you hurt, you’re miserable! So telling these people that ignoring their pain will make them feel better may sound absurd at first.  The thing is:  it just might work.

Johns Hopkins researchers in psychiatry and behavioral sciences just published a study that explores the vicious cycle of chronic pain. Essentially, researchers say, dwelling on the pain disturbs sleep; less sleep equals more pain… and the cycle begins again. And a lot of that misery is going on inside the patient’s head — which is not the same as saying that it doesn’t exist. Studies have shown that focusing on pain (especially dwelling on it in a negative way) makes pain feel worse; doctors call this “pain catastrophizing.” And messing with sleep patterns has also been shown to make people more sensitive to pain.

So what’s to be done? The researchers suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy, a treatment that tries to uproot entrenched thinking patterns, may help disrupt the vicious cycle of pain-sleep disturbance-more pain — without (or as a complement to) medication. “It may sound simple, but you can change the way you feel by changing the way you think,” said Luis Buenaver, the lead researcher on the study.

Pain is no fun. Do you know what’s also no fun? Being blamed for problems at work, especially when they’re not necessarily your fault. Or that’s what it feels like at the time. But hold that thought:  research by Brian Gunia,  a professor at Johns Hopkins’ Carey Business School, shows that taking the blame for a group mistake generally leads to more praise and more money.

Wait, what? It sounds completely counterintuitive. Gunia agrees:  “The dilemma is really that your intuition — evade blame — conflicts with what others would like you to do — take the blame.” But taking the blame turned out to be a career booster. According to Gunia, this is because people can’t move on from what he calls a diffuse failure — a slip-up that’s not clearly the fault of one person — until they figure out who to blame. Once that’s been settled, everyone can move on and deal with actually fixing the problem. “By taking blame, you prevent the blame from spreading to the other people who were also involved,” Gunia told  Johns Hopkins magazine. A team leader earns respect from subordinates by choosing to own the blame; but it also works in the other direction — a lower-level employee might get rewarded for stopping the blame from traveling up the chain of command.

Some organizations have already started putting more emphasis on admitting — rather than shifting — the blame. Gunia cites the University of Michigan Health System, whose official apology policy instructs staff members to “Apologize and learn when we’re wrong, explain and vigorously defend when we’re right, and view court as a last resort.” You might think that willingness to apologize and accept blame would lead to more lawsuits, but it turns out that the opposite is actually true:  the hospital’s malpractice claims dropped 62 percent since they instituted the policy in 2001.

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