That's the question we explore in our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the link in box at right or read the transcript here). We look into a few different kinds of pain, inflicted in different circumstances, to see what we can learn. The biggest takeaway: it's not necessarily how much something hurts; it's how youremember the pain.
We start off underground, in the New York City subway, where noise pollution abounds and where one particular noise is downright painful. You'll hear it in the podcast, and we talk about it with Pete Foley, a longtime "revenue equipment maintainer" with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. He admits that the entry/exit setup in the subway is way sub-optimal, producing lots of needless noise from bleating alarms:
SJD: Do you think there are any hidden benefits, though, to this alarm? Do you think maybe it keeps rats out of the subway?
Foley: No, but with the amount of usage of these gates and the poor design, the hinges and the push bars, and things like that, we get a lot of overtime to fix them … and fix the alarms that wear out all the time, so in my department we get a lot of overtime because of it.
SJD: So you're pro-alarm?
Foley: Actually I'm not as a taxpayer … [but] the overtime's good.
You'll also hear about a very different kind of pain — jaw-breaking physical pain — from a couple of New York Islanders defensemen, Jack Hillen andAndrew MacDonald. The Islanders are among the league leaders in blocked shots, and some of them hurt an awful lot. So how do players withstand the pain, and put it behind them in order to keep hauling their bodies onto the ice night after night?
Here's a look at Hillen taking one of the most brutal shot-blocks you're likely to see, a puck off the stick of Alexander Ovechkin:
We also talk to Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland, who recently had to talk his constituents through the pain of accepting a massive budget shortfall. We happened to interview O'Malley the day before his State of the State address, and asked how often he's mentioned the words pain or painful:
O'Malley: You know what, I've been well-advised … not to use the word pain and not to use the word painful. Those words cause pain, and those words are painful.
The heavyweight of our pain episode isDonald Redelmeier, a Toronto physician and researcher whose clever and creative research you may have read about in the paston this blog. Redelemeier has a lot of experience helping people in pain:
Redelmeier:I'm usually called to see people when there are many things going wrong at the same time… so, a person has been smashed in a roadway crash and they've also had a heart attack. Or somebody else has fallen down a staircase and they've also got AIDS. Or somebody else has been shot in the chest and they also have got diabetes.
We talk to Redelmeier about his research, done in collaboration with Daniel Kahneman, on colonoscopy patients — how they experience pain during the procedure but also, more important, how they remember the experience of the pain. Much of what they learned is fascinating, and surprising, and tells us a lot about how human beings process any kind of pain — whether it comes from a colonoscope, a tight budget, a hockey puck or a shrieking subway alarm.
So have a listen. We promise: it won't hurt a bit.