Why pay for pain?

14 March 2017

Women crawling through mud on course

Extreme and painful adventure challenges can help office workers deal with the impact of a sedentary lifestyle, according to new research by Cardiff University, Kedge Business School and Nanyang Technological University.

Focusing on the adventure challenge Tough Mudder, a team of researchers set about trying to understand why people pay for an experience that is deliberately marketed as painful.

Tough Mudder sees participants running through torrents of mud, plunging into freezing water and even crawling through 10,000 volts of electric wires. Injuries have included spinal damage, strokes, heart attacks, and even death. Yet as of 2016, over 2.5 million participants have entered the challenge.

Dr Rebecca Scott, Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University, said: “On the one hand consumers spend billions of dollars every year on pain relief, while exhausting and painful experiences such as obstacle races and ultra-marathons are gaining in popularity. How do we explain that? That’s what we aimed to find out with this research.”

The team discovered that pain helps individuals deal with the physical inactivity of office life, bringing the body into sharp focus and allowing participants who spend much of their time sitting in front of computers, to rediscover the nature of their body.

In addition, pain facilitates escape. Pain provides a temporary relief from the burdens of self-awareness.

“For individuals who feel that modern office work has made their bodies’ redundant, obstacle racing and other forms of short but intense and painful activities provide a brief but acute reappearance of the body,” said Assistant Professor Julien Cayla, of Nanyang Business School.

Professor Bernard Cova of Kedge Business School added: “Electric shocks and ice-cold water may be painful but they also allow participants to escape from the demands and anxieties of modern life. By leaving marks and wounds, painful experiences help us create the story of a fulfilled life spent exploring the limits of the body.”

Selling Pain to the Saturated Self is published in The Journal of Consumer Research. It is available to read here.

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