The Influence of Contextual Variables on Judgments about Patients and Their Pain

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Professional judgments about persistent pain are influenced by contextual variables, which are features relating to the patient, the assessor, or the broader situation. Such judgments directly inform assessment and treatment and therefore represent an important area of research. While current formulations of persistent pain adopt a biopsychosocial framework, contextual variables relating to psychosocial information have not been well examined in the literature.


We employed a within-subjects experimental vignette paradigm to investigate the influence of four contextual variables, 2 (medical evidence: present vs absent) × 2 (pain behavior: present vs absent) × 2 (referral to a psychologist: yes vs no) × 2 (responsibility: onset controllable vs onset uncontrollable), on perceptions of pain. Judgments about patients with chronic low back pain were made across several dimensions.


One hundred sixteen medical and nursing students.


Main findings revealed that identifiable pain pathology led to increased ratings of pain intensity and emotional distress, and decreased perceived likelihood of malingering. Pain behavior and referral to a psychologist were also found to increase ratings of pain intensity and emotional distress. Encouragingly, psychological referral was not found to increase the perceived likelihood of malingering. Responsibility for the initial injury was found to influence judgments, but this occurred in interaction with medical evidence as well as pain behavior.


These findings suggest that contextual variables have an important influence on medical and nursing students' perceptions of patients and their pain. Theoretical and practical implications for provider training and community education are discussed.

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