Implicit versus explicit associative learning and experimentally induced placebo hypoalgesia
Andrea L Martin-Pichora1,2, Tsipora D. Mankovsky-Arnold3, Joel Katz1
1Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada; 2Centre for Student Development and Counseling, Ryerson University, Toronto, ON, Canada; 3Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
Abstract: The present study examined whether 1) placebo hypoalgesia can be generated through implicit associative learning (ie, conditioning in the absence of conscious awareness) and 2) the magnitude of placebo hypoalgesia changes when expectations about pain are made explicit. The temperature of heat pain stimuli was surreptitiously lowered during conditioning trials for the placebo cream and the magnitude of the placebo effect was assessed during a subsequent set of trials when the temperature was the same for both placebo and control conditions. To assess whether placebo hypoalgesia could be generated from an implicit tactile stimulus, a 2 × 2 design was used with direction of cream application as one factor and verbal information about which cream was being applied as the second factor. A significant placebo effect was observed when participants received verbal information about which cream was being applied but not following implicit conditioning alone. However, 87.5% of those who showed a placebo response as the result of implicit conditioning were able to accurately guess the order of cream application during the final trial, despite a lack of awareness about the sensory manipulation and low confidence in their ratings, suggesting implicit learning in some participants. In summary, implicit associative learning was evident in some participants but it was not sufficient to produce a placebo effect suggesting some level of explicit expectation or cognitive mediation may be necessary. Notably, the placebo response was abolished when expectations were made explicit, suggesting a delicate interplay between attention and expectation.
Keywords: placebo hypoalgesia, associative learning, expectancy, implicit learning
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