There may be gender bias when it comes to estimating women’s pain – new study suggests

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Sad girl with headache. Young redhead woman feeling pain, lying on sofa at home
Sad girl with headache. Young redhead woman feeling pain, lying on sofa at home
  • According to a new study, people who observe others' pain may be biased
  • The study relied on facial expressions of people who were in pain as a measure for observers to rate their pain
  • The researchers of the study found that people greatly underestimate women's pain compared to men's pain 

Being able to estimate an individual’s pain level is important in any situation. One of the markers to identify suffering or pain is through facial expressions, which researchers in a recent study used to examine how people perceived the pain levels of others.

The researchers went a step further by looking at whether people have any gender bias when it comes to pain perception.

Estimating male and female pain

The study involved two experiments where researchers studied the impact a patient’s gender had on observers’ estimates of their pain, as well as the observers’ recommendations for treatment.

The first experiment involved observers or “perceivers” watching videos of male and female patients suffering from chronic shoulder pain. The observers, who are not medical professionals, were asked to estimate the patients’ pain intensity. Results of the first experiment indicate that observers underestimated the pain of female patients compared to male patients. 

“The more willing perceivers believed women are to report pain than men, the less pain they perceived female patients to be in,” the authors explained.

“Importantly, these biases were observed while participants viewed actual patients in genuine clinical pain, and when controlling for pain facial expressiveness and patients' self-reported pain.”

Estimated pain and treatment options

The second experiment was an expansion of the first, but this time more observers were included (three of whom were healthcare workers) who also had chronic pain of their own. Participants were again asked to rate patients’ pain levels and also asked which medications they would prescribe (medication or psychotherapy) to each patient. 

The researchers found that the results of the second experiment closely matched those of the first. 

“[Experiment 2] additionally found that 1) perceivers’ pain-related gender stereotypes, specifically beliefs about typical women's vs men's willingness to express pain, predicted pain estimation biases; and 2) perceivers judged female patients as relatively more likely to benefit from psychotherapy, whereas male patients were judged to benefit more from pain medicine,” the researchers explained. 

Overall, it appears that observers rely on assumptions about gender to explain and understand the pain they see. 

“Together, these findings suggest that women's pain is underestimated compared to men's and perceived to benefit more [from] psychotherapy, and that perceivers' pain-related stereotypes may be a source of these pain estimation and treatment biases,” the study authors concluded. 

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