Loughborough University
Jayne Pickering thesis, repository version 21.4.20 .pdf (8.09 MB)
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The disruptive effect of pain on arithmetic performance: exploring group and individual differences

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posted on 2020-06-19, 15:32 authored by Jayne Pickering
This thesis investigates pain’s disruptive effect on numerical cognition. Any factors which interrupt attention, memory and cognitive performance are important to research as they have wide-reaching consequences and could result in low quality of life for pain sufferers. This area has received much attention over the last twenty years since the seminal cognitive-affective model (Eccleston & Crombez, 1999) formally established a research framework for investigating pain’s effects. However, several questions still remain.
First, the inconsistent literature suggests that pain may not reliably affect cognition. However, few replications exist to test this hypothesis. Second, pain’s ‘real- world’ effects are still unknown. It is unclear whether statistically-significant changes in basic attention tasks translate to real-world detriments. Third, it is unclear whether some predictors of pain’s disruptive effects may be trait differences across individuals. Fourth, these questions persist because the mechanism of pain’s disruptive effect is still unclear.
This thesis addresses these four research questions within the context of numerical cognition. Part One looks at group effects and the reliability of pain’s disruption. A p-curve analysis (a meta-analytic approach) suggests that there is evidence for pain’s effect on cognition; although, power may be somewhat lacking in published research, which may explain some null results. Two studies showed a detrimental effect of laboratory-induced pain with higher errors in basic addition and shopping-decisions tasks, in comparison to no-pain conditions. However, these results are unreliable. In a replication-and-extension study, no effect of pain was found using the same addition task. Additionally, no effect of pain was found in a basic attention task. Therefore, Part One finishes with mixed results.
Part Two looks at the role of individual differences. Specifically, two studies look at motivation (whether some individuals are able to exert extra effort to overcome pain’s disruptive effects). An online study found an interaction between motivation and performance – supporting its pre-registered prediction. A second study did not find a relationship when motivation was manipulated via incentives. However, self-reported effort predicted arithmetic performance. To elucidate the mechanism through which motivation may work, the final study looked at distraction (whether focusing attention away from pain, and towards a cognitive task, reduces pain and paradoxically improves cognitive performance for some individuals). As predicted, pain ratings were lower for a high-load task than a low-load task. Additionally, pain-focus scores predicted arithmetic performance. However, it remains unclear whether distraction effects are driven by motivation differences.
I conclude that pain has a real-world impact on numerical thinking and these effects are best investigated via individual differences. However, validated, reliable metrics and replications are needed to understand these inconsistent results.



  • Science


  • Mathematics Education Centre


Loughborough University

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© Jayne Pickering

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A doctoral thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.


  • en


Nina Attridge ; Matthew Inglis

Qualification name

  • PhD

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  • Doctoral

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