misunderstanding and painI suppose we have all had the experience of feeling misunderstood. Sometimes other people just don’t get who we really are. It can be frustrating and unnerving. It is emotionally unpleasant.

There is no research on whether people who are single – particularly those who are single-at-heart – are more often misunderstood than others. Because of the myth that just about everyone wants to be coupled, it is possible that single people who love their single lives are more likely to be doubted by certain other people. You know the ones I mean – those who insist that single people who choose single life are just fooling themselves about being happy.

Recent research suggests that the implications of feeling misunderstood go beyond the emotional.

When other people don’t see us as we see ourselves, we can have less tolerance of physical pain. The same experience (for example, of extreme cold) can feel even more painful when we are feeling misunderstood than when we are feeling understood.

The converse effect is also true, although it is less powerful. If you feel understood by another person, you will have more tolerance for physical pain.

In the research, participants first indicate how they see themselves. From a list of 10 personality traits, they choose the two that describe them most accurately, and the two that describe them least accurately. Then they have an informal conversation with another person – someone they do not know.

After the conversation, participants describe their impressions of the other person. Then they read about the impressions the other person formed of them.

If you are familiar with social psychological research, then you already know something about the feedback the participants receive. It is rigged. By random assignment, some participants read feedback indicating that their conversation partner perceived them much the same as they see themselves. The other participants learn that their conversation partner got them all wrong. That makes them feel misunderstood.  There was also a control condition in which participants did not exchange any feedback with their conversation partner.

Now for the part about tolerating pain. There is a fairly standard way of measuring that in the lab, called the cold pressor task. Participants stick their nondominant hand into a bucket of ice water for as long as they can stand.

The results were straightforward: People who were feeling misunderstood could tolerate the ice water for shorter periods of time than people in the control condition. People who were feeling understood could tolerate more pain; they kept their hands in the ice water longer.

There were other parts to the study. For example, after the cold pressor task, participants went outside and stood in front of a hill, then estimated how steep they thought it was. The participants who felt misunderstood thought the hill was steeper than the participants in the control condition did.

The research only demonstrated that the effect of feeling misunderstood on tolerance of physical pain (and perceptions of slope) existed. So the authors could only speculate on why the effect occurs. Here’s what they suggest:

“The interaction with a stranger who misunderstood him or her could be like an interaction with a threatening person. To the extent that the state of vigilance requires energy…and to the extent that caloric resources available affects one’s perception, felt misunderstanding could give rise to an exaggerated perception of the icy water, hill, and distance.”

As always, feel free to share your own ideas in the comments section.


Oishi, S., Schiller, J., & Gross, E. B. (2012). Felt understanding and misunderstanding affect the perception of pain, slant, and distance. Social Psychology and Personality Science.

Woman in pain photo available from Shutterstock