a benign masochist enjoying what the mind may think is threatening

New Research Explains The Paradoxical Phenomenon Of 'Benign Masochism'

Researcher Karolina Dyduch-Hazar explains why benign masochists embrace pleasure in everyday painful experiences.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 13, 2024

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality explores how benign masochism—enjoying aversive experiences falsely interpreted as threatening—relates to greater pleasure from such experiences.

I recently spoke with the lead author of the paper, Karolina Dyduch-Hazar of the Department of Psychology at the Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg. The study shows that individuals high in benign masochism enjoy repulsive stimuli and derive positive feelings from them. Here is a summary of the conversation:

Can you describe the term "benign masochism"? How does it explain why people might enjoy initially frightening or aversive experiences?

Benign masochism describes enjoying unpleasant experiences that the mind initially interprets as threatening. These experiences are not a real danger, but the mind falsely interprets them as such. When one goes for a deep tissue massage or visits an osteopath, he or she can think that being massaged or treated in this way could be potentially dangerous. Shortly though, the feeling of pleasure or relief emerges and one starts to moan or smile; this is the moment when one realizes that the body has been fooled by the mind. The concept of benign masochism captures individual differences in seeking such hedonic reversals, meaning that the more someone is benignly masochistic, the more he or she will seek painful activities to feel pleasure.

How does the research differentiate between the enjoyment of repulsive experiences by benign masochists and the pleasure derived by sensation seekers from intense experiences?

Sensation seekers seek intense experiences that would keep them excited or alerted. These experiences can be both positive (experiences that evoke positive emotions such as amusement or joy) and negative (experiences that evoke negative emotions such as anger or fear). Benign masochists, on the other hand, seek unpleasant experiences that are characterized by high to medium levels of arousal such as fear or sadness.

Did you find any gender differences in the research?

Participants in our studies were predominantly women, hence we did not examine potential gender differences. However, previous research found that women score higher than men in preference for seeking pleasure from sadness (reading sad novels or watching sad movies). Men, on the other hand, score higher than women in preference to seek pleasure from drinking beer or scotch - enjoying the bodily repulsion that follows immediately after taking a gulp.

Can you explain how benign masochism might serve as a means of regulating emotions, especially in practical terms?

People can take pleasure in all sorts of things. Benign masochists, more than others, seek harmless but unpleasant experiences. This is because such experiences make them feel good and most likely help them maintain their optimal emotional balance. These include listening to the sorrowful music (e.g. The Funeral March), watching sad films (e.g. The Shawshank Redemption) or repulsive channels (e.g., Dr. Pimple Popper) or even traveling to frightening or (but physically harmless) places such as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Tour back in the day.

How does the idea of benign masochism relate to everyday choices and behaviors, and are there situations where understanding this concept can lead to better decisions?

Benign masochists, more than others, will engage in pleasantly painful activities. They will watch tearjerkers or horrors rather than comedies or romances as watching such movies will likely make them feel good. They can be more prone to book a table at a restaurant that serves extremely spicy dishes and order a plain scotch rather than a sweet wine as having mouth burned or eyes teared would be enjoyable to them. Benign masochism can also be linked to certain tourism preferences such as visiting immersive horror houses where customers pay to have fun from experienced terror or suffering. This amusement comes from realizing one is in a distance from the factual danger. It is a joyful surprise.

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