In an experiment published in a 2006 issue of the journal Pain, Eisenberger used 75 participants to explore how perceptions of physical pain changed given changing social circumstances.
First, researchers identified each person’s unique pain threshold by applying different levels of heat to their arm. Participants rated how much pain they felt until levels reached “very unpleasant.” This provided a baseline for personal pain thresholds under normal conditions.
Participants then “played” a ball-tossing game where they saw three characters on a computer screen. One character represented the participant, and researchers explained that the other two characters were played by real people — though in fact, a computer ran the entire game. The participant was either socially included (the ball was tossed to their character) or excluded (the ball was never tossed to their character). In the final 30 seconds of the game, heat was reapplied to each participant’s arm and they once again rated pain levels.