When a child gets hurt, we try to soothe them. We coddle them, give them their favorite treats, and attempt to make them feel better.

In our minds this is straightforward: pain is bad, and so we are trying to alleviate pain and return them to normal.

But this theory is too naive. Three critical facts about human existence:

  1. We are much more sensitive to changes in sensation than to their levels.
  2. We are pattern-seeking agents in an unpredictable world.
  3. Attention from others is an almost unqualified good.

And all of these are especially true for children! It follows that what we are really doing is providing a reward signal for pain, or at least for visible displays of being hurt. For example, crying can be a personal act but it is also often an act of signaling that care is desired. People who spend time with children will already know that often a child will fall and then look at the nearest adult before starting to cry.

It’s worth thinking about what reward signals we are sending to people in our daily lives. But it’s easy to be dehumanizing when we do this. Can we compassionately explain to our friends that we’re ignoring their cries for help because we don’t want to incentivize them to complain more in the future?