Our long-held notions of boys as being more stoic and girls as being more expressive may lead Americans to overrate the severity of male physical pain.
A recent study by psychologists at Yale University found that adults, when presented with imagery of a child’s finger being pricked, considered the child to be in less pain when they thought it was a girl.
The study, published in The Journal of Pediatric Psychology, involved showing 264 adult participants a video of a child whose gender appeared ambiguous. Afterwards one group of participants was told the child in the video was named Samuel, while the other group was told her name was Samantha. They were then asked to rate how much pain the “boy” or “girl” experienced against how much pain he or she displayed.
Participants rated the child as experiencing more pain when it was described as a boy.
“Explicit gender stereotypes – for example, that boys are more stoic or girls are more emotive – may bias adult assessment of children’s pain,” the authors concluded.
The study built on the work of one of its co-authors, Lindsey Cohen of Georgia State University, who led a 2014 study in Children’s Health Care in which participants also rated their perceptions of a child’s pain after watching a video of his or her finger being pricked. While that study used a predominantly female cohort of university-age students, the Yale study broadens that research, showing that the effect is measurable in a participant group of adults ages 18 to 75 and balanced between gender.
Of particular note, said the Yale study’s lead author, Brian Earp, is that the phenomena illustrated in the study primarily applies to female observers. While men were likely to rate perceptions of boys’ and girls’ pain more closely together, the women in the study felt boys’ pain to be more acute than girls’.
Earp said it was as though they thought, “‘For a boy to express that much pain, he must really be in pain.’”
He suggested that scholars could do similar research with babies to see if gender stereotypes start even earlier.
In her 2018 book, “Doing Harm,” Maya Dusenbery found that sexism influences how women’s cases are treated in the healthcare system. She says this Yale study on gender bias “really lines up with what we see in perceptions of pain among adults. It is remarkable that those stereotypes would start so young.”
Dusenbery said, “Women are are more likely to seek care for pain more readily. This doesn’t mean you should take it less seriously when they do seek care.”
She added, “What happens in the real world is that women are seen as overstating pain rather than just being more accurate in describing it.”
This month’s Yale study fits into a broader body of research showing how other marginalized populations find it harder to get doctors to listen to their pain. One such study showed that men and whites were much more likely to be referred for cardiac catheterization than were women and blacks reporting the same chest pain symptoms.
Another study found that white medical students and residents held false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites, which led to racial bias in treatment.