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The effect of pain on task switching: pain reduces accuracy and increases reaction times across multiple switching paradigms

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Pain disrupts attention, which may have negative consequences for daily life for people with acute or chronic pain. It has been suggested that switching between tasks may leave us particularly susceptible to pain-related attentional disruption, because we need to disengage our attention from one task before shifting it onto another. Switching tasks typically elicit lower accuracies and/or longer reaction times when participants switch to a new task compared with repeating the same task, and pain may exacerbate this effect. We present 3 studies to test this hypothesis. In study 1, participants completed 2 versions of an alternating runs switching task under pain-free and thermal pain–induction conditions. Pain did not affect performance on either task. In studies 2 and 3, we examined 7 versions of the switching task using large general population samples, experiencing a variety of naturally occurring pain conditions, recruited and tested on the internet. On all tasks, participants with pain had longer reaction times on both switch and repeat trials compared with participants without pain, but pain did not increase switch costs. In studies 2 and 3, we also investigated the effects of type of pain, duration of pain, and analgesics on task performance. We conclude that pain has a small dampening effect on performance overall on switching tasks. This suggests that pain interrupts attention even when participants are engaged in a trial, not only when attention has been disengaged for shifting to a new task set.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2179-2193
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2016


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