Bad Times Bond Us Together

Photo: Warner Bros.

Harry Potter nerds, remember the scene in the first book when the kids defeat the troll? There’s a great line at the end of the chapter that goes, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” Now some new research delves into that notion, further solidifying the idea that sharing a stressful or painful experience with other people helps bond us together.

The Association of Psychological Science describes the experiments like so:

In the first experiment, the researchers randomly assigned 54 students to perform either a painful task or a similar, relatively painless, task in small groups. The students submerged their hand in a bucket of water and were tasked with locating metal balls in the water and placing them into a small underwater container. For some, the water was painfully cold, while for others the water was room temperature.

A second task required the students to either perform an upright wall squat (which is typically painful) or to balance on one leg, with the option of switching legs and using balance aids to avoid fatigue.

After these experiments, the participants were asked how they felt about their group — for example, how loyal they felt to other group members and how much a part of the group they felt. The people who’d gone through the painful task together reported feeling a higher degree of bonding with their teammates than did those who’d been given the painless task.

What’s more, the researchers in a separate experiment showed that feelings of togetherness induced by a shared painful experience may help boost cooperation. Back to the press release:

In an experiment with another set of students, each group played a game that involved choosing numbers between 1 and 7 — if everyone in the group chose 7, they would get the highest payoff. But, if they chose different numbers, those who picked lower numbers would get a greater payoff. The researchers found that students who had performed painful tasks as a group tended to pick higher numbers than those who performed the pain-free tasks, suggesting that they were more motivated to cooperate with the group.

Lead author Brock Bastian, a psychological scientist at the University of New South Wales, said in the press release that we see the everyday applications of this work in military bootcamps, or sports teams’ intense preseason drills. Personally, I once shared a rather painful backpacking trip with a girl who was then an acquaintance (it was painful because we were both pretty inexperienced and out of shape and everything — from the drive to the hike to setting up camp — took twice as long as we expected it would); after the trip, she soon became a close friend. Or, one more way to look at it: Some social psychologists, it seems, are in the business of providing scientific evidence to back themes found in the Potter books.