Brian Earp, Yale University – Pain and Gender

On This Student Spotlight: Does our sex determine how our pain is measured?

Brian Earp, PhD candidate in philosophy and psychology at Yale University, undertakes an experiment to find out.

Brian is pursuing a joint Ph.D. in philosophy and psychology, having received his undergraduate degree in cognitive science from Yale, a master’s degree in psychology from the University Oxford, and a second master’s degree in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge. Brian is also a professional writer, actor, and singer.

Pain and Gender

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There’s a lot of research suggesting that men and women sometimes receive different treatment when it comes to pain, but not much work on babies and children. So we wanted to see if a child’s pain might be treated differently based only on their sex or gender. To test this, we took a video of a 5-year-old child dressed in gender-neutral clothing getting a routine blood draw in a doctor’s office. You see the finger prick and the child grimace, and you hear the child cry out in pain, but you can’t tell whether it’s a boy or a girl based on the way the video is filmed.

So in one condition, we just told participants they were watching a video of a girl named Samantha, and asked them to rate how much pain “she” was in; and in the other condition we told them it was a boy named Samuel and to rate how much pain “he” was in. In other words, participants in both groups saw the exact same video: the same child, the same finger prick, the same reaction to the pain.

But participants who knew the child as Samuel rated his pain as more severe than those who thought they were watching a girl named Samantha. What could explain this? Well, one possibility has to do with gender stereotypes that exist in the wider culture: for example, that boys are, or should be, more stoic when it comes to pain and that girls can be more expressive.

So if you see a boy that is clearly showing pain, you might think, hmm, I guess he must really be in pain to act in this expressive way. In fact, when we controlled for participant’s beliefs that boys in general show or express less pain than girls, the finding disappeared. This suggests that those gender stereotypes probably did play a role in the different ratings for the child’s pain. 

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