Is masochism necessary?

byPhilGoetz 10y10th Apr 2009147 comments


Followup to Stuck in the middle with Bruce:

Bruce is a description of masochistic personality disorder.  Bruce's dysfunctional behavior may or may not be related to sexual masochism [safe for work], which is demonized by most people in America.  Yet there are ordinary, socially-accepted behaviors that seem partly masochistic to me:

  • Eating spicy food
  • Listening to the music of Anton Webern or Alban Berg (not trying to be funny; this is very serious)
  • Listening to music turned up so loud that it hurts
  • Fiction
  • Movies, especially horror movies
  • Roller coasters
  • Saunas
  • Enjoying exercise
  • Being Bruce

Question 1: Can you list more?

Question 2: Doubtless some of the behaviors I listed have completely different explanations, some of which might not involve masochism at all.  Which do you think involve enjoying pain?  Can you cluster them by causal mechanism?

Question 3: When we find ourselves acting masochistically, should we try to "correct" it?  Or is it part of a healthy human's nature?  If so, what's the evolutionary-psych explanation?  (I was surprised not to find any evo-psych explanations for masochism on the web; or even any general theory of masochism that tried to unite two different behaviors.  All I found were the ideas that sexual masochism is caused by bad childhood models of love, and that masochistic personality is caused by other, unspecified bad experiences.  No suggestion that masochism is part of our normal pleasure mechanism.)

Some hypotheses:

  1. Evolution implemented "need to explore" (in the "exploration/exploitation" sense) as pleasure in new experiences, and adaptation to any particular often-repeated stimulus.  This could result in seeking ever-higher levels of stimulation, even above the pain threshold.  (This could affect a culture as well as an organism, giving the progression Vivaldi -> Bach -> Mozart -> Beethoven -> Wagner -> Stravinsky -> Berg -> screw it, let's invent rock and roll and start over.  My original belief was that this progression was caused by people trying to signal sophistication, rather than by honest enjoyment of music.  But maybe some people <DELETION of "jaded"> honestly enjoy Berg.)
  2. We have a "pain thermostat" to get us to explore / prevent us from being too cowardly, and modern life leaves us below our set point.  (Is masochism more prevalent now than in the bad old days?)
    1. An objection to this is that sometimes, when people are in emotional pain, they work through it by throwing themselves into further emotional pain (e.g., by listening to Pink Floyd).
      1. An objection to this objection is that primal scream therapy seems not actually to work except in the short term.
  3. Pain triggers endorphins in order to help us fight or flee, and it feels good.
  4. We enjoy fighting and athletic competition, and pain is associated with these things we enjoy.

My guess is that, if it's a side-effect (e.g., 3) or a non-causal association (4), it's okay to eliminate masochism.  Otherwise, that could be risky.

These all lead up to Question 4, which is a fun-theory question:  Would purging ourselves of masochism make life less fun?

ADDED: Question 5: Can we train ourselves not to be Bruce without damaging our enjoyment of these other things?