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Lecture 2: Emotion and social interaction
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Lecture 2: Emotion and social interaction

The effect of social comparison on our emotions should not be underestimated.
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In the final section, we will look into some issues about social interaction. We all know that pain and pleasure are derived from physical interaction with the environment. For example, hearing loud noise is painful and having something tasty is pleasant. Pain or suffering and pleasure are also derived from our interaction with other people. For example, we feel it joyful to be accepted by our friends, and we dislike the feeling of being excluded by other people. In fact, some research evidence, especially evidence from brain imaging, shows an overlap between the brain mechanisms of physical pain and pleasure the brain mechanisms of social pain and pleasure.
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Though the detailed mechanisms remain unclear, the findings suggest that the connection with other people, just like the environment, is key to our emotions. And in recent years, researchers have found that social comparison, a common form of our relationship with other people, plays a major key in our emotions. We can dissect social comparison in different forms. For example, the object to be compared may be our friend or our opponent, and the result of comparison may be ‘I am the winner’ or loser. The different forms of comparison are associated with different emotions. For example, we envy someone who may be our potential opponent when he or she just did something more brilliant than we did.
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That kind of envy may bring us negative feelings. In contrast, the term schadenfreude refers to the situation when our opponent fails – especially when they fail to achieve something that they are so good at unexpectedly. I hope that you won’t feel surprised that the feeling of schadenfreude is usually positive. The effect of social comparison on our emotions should not be underestimated.
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In fact, during dental practice, patients are making a comparison all the time! They would compare their current toothache with the pain from the last toothache.
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They would compare the treatment results done by us with the results from another dentist. Moreover, they would compare our treatment to them with the treatment of other people. In the last condition, patients may feel confused or anxious when they find that ‘what you do to me’ is different from ‘what you do to other patients.’ For example, it is not uncommon to hear some patients complain that ‘Why did you extract my tooth? It is not very painful’ especially when they compared the situation with what happened to their friends. The patients would keep on complaining, ‘One of my friends got a very bad tooth, and you did not extract it but fix it.
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Why did you treat me differently?’ I can realize how uncomfortable it is, for dentists, to be questioned in this way. However, this is not surprising if we consider that a major role for the human mind is to make a comparison, and we are extremely sensitive to something unfair – as long as we perceive the unfairness. For example, patients may feel it unfair if they have a good tooth to be extracted, but the ‘worse’ teeth if their friends are kept. The sense of unfairness would greatly influence their emotion. We are sensitive to all kinds of unfairness.
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Most importantly, the ‘unfairness’ is very subjective and therefore psychologists called it ‘perceived fairness’ – what matters is the way we feel or interpret an unfair event. And we usually feel something unfair by making a comparison. For example, as I just mentioned, patients may make a comparison between the current treatment and the treatment they received last time. Some dentists told me that the best strategy is to tell patients ‘don’t make such a comparison’. I am not sure if that really works. Instead, I believe that we should take more time to help patients understand what the comparison really means. For example, is it wise to compare between a removable denture and crown-and-bridge?
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What pros and cons should we keep in mind when we make such a comparison? What we can do, I think, is to make the comparison more reasonable by sharing information with patients.

Social interaction

In the final section, we will look into some issues about social interaction and comparison.

We all know that pain and pleasure are derived from physical interaction with the environment. But how can we divide pain and pleasure in our brains? Do they always have the obvious distinction?

They play important roles in the dental practice, why?

And is dental practice something related to comparison?

In fact, patients are comparing all the time! What may they compare? The pain? The last treatment experience?

Is it the best strategy to tell patients ‘don’t make any kind of comparison’ during the dentist-patient interaction? What do you think is better? What pros and cons should we keep in mind when we make such a comparison?

We would love to know more about your opinion!

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Brain, Behaviour, and Dentistry

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