What do you think about the picture of the little girl above? What if I told you she was upset because she had hurt her finger? Would you think she was in serious pain or maybe overreacting a bit?

Now imagine a child that is in exactly the same position with the same pained expression, except that this second child is a boy. Would this change your impression of the level of pain the child is experiencing?

The obvious answer is no, but new research from Yale University suggests American adults actually take girls' pain less seriously. 

In research that sought to replicate similar work from five years ago but with a bigger, more diverse pool of participants, researchers had people watch a video of a 5-year-old having their finger stuck by a doctor. One group was told the child was named "Samuel" while another group knew her as "Samantha."

Participants were then asked to rate how much pain they thought the child in the video was experiencing. The result was that people thought "Samuel" was in more pain than "Samantha," even though the video the different groups watched was the same.

The researchers believe this disparity could be attributed to gender stereotypes or social myths like "boys are more stoic" or "girls are more emotive."

"We really hope that these findings will lead to further investigation into the potential role of biases in pain assessment and health care more generally," said study co-author Joshua Monrad.

Monrad says the findings also have real implications for pediatric health care.

"Any biases in judgments about pain would be hugely important because they can exacerbate inequitable health care provision."

Earlier research had similar results involving adult patients as well. An unrelated study from last June found that health care providers "of both genders reported they believed the typical man was less willing to report pain than the typical woman.”

Other studies have put it slightly differently, reporting that medical professionals are inclined to believe that women tend to exaggerate their pain. 

Taken altogether, it's easy to reach some upsetting conclusions about how we're socialized to perceive pain in individuals and internalize gender stereotypes. The girl above who is more easily dismissed as overreacting may grow up to be a woman who receives an inadequate dose of pain medication for her ailments, and all for no good reason. 

Published on: Feb 13, 2019
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