Who cries louder--girls or boys?

Have you been to the hospital recently? Have you seen the poster of faces lined up, smile to grimace, urging you to rate your pain on a scale of zero to ten?

The assessment of pain is complicated by the fact that pain, unlike blood pressure or pulse, is experienced and interpreted subjectively. This subjectivity raises questions: does the reporting of pain differ across gender? And do medical professionals interpret signs of pain differently across gender?

To investigate the relationship between gender and pain in children, Brian Earp ’21PhD, a joint doctoral candidate in philosophy and psychology, and five collaborators, showed participants a video of a child whose blood was being drawn by finger-stick. One group was told it was a girl, the other a boy. The participants were asked how much pain the child displayed and felt during the procedure.

Earp found that “when participants were told the child in the video was a girl, they rated the child as experiencing less pain than when they were told the child was a boy.” (This result was driven entirely by female survey participants.) The most compelling explanation, Earp says, is the stereotype that boys are raised to be more stoic, and so would need to endure more pain to show the same reaction as girls. In fact, he adds, “when we controlled for stereotypes about boys and girls, this main effect disappeared.”

But Earp is quick to express caution about interpreting the results. His findings don’t imply that girls and boys receive different treatment, he says: “though girls’ pain was rated as less severe, that doesn’t mean it was taken less seriously.”

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