Kurt Gray of the University of Maryland said the way people read the intentions of others changes their physical experience of the world.
"The results confirm that good intentions -- even misguided ones -- can soothe pain, increase pleasure and make things taste better," Gray said in a statement.
In one experiment, three groups of participants received identical electric shocks at the hand of a partner -- one group thought they were being shocked without their partner's awareness; one thought they were shocked on purpose, for no good reason; and the third group thought they were shocked on purpose, because another person was trying to help them win money. Participants in the last group experienced significantly less pain than the other two groups, Gray said.
In a second experiment, people sat on an electric massage pad in an easy chair which was repeatedly turned on -- either by an indifferent computer or a caring partner. Although the massages were identical, Gray found partner massages caused significantly more pleasure than those generated by the computer.
Subjects were given candy in a package with a note attached that said either: "I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy," or "Whatever. I just don't care. I just picked it randomly." Those who got the first note said not only did the candy taste better, but it also tasted significantly sweeter, Gray said.
The findings were published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.