Pain research often involves investigating the link between the subjective experience of what’s hurting compared to brain activation, mental state or situation. While past research has reported gender differences in pain thresholds, a new study casts a hazy light across the field by finding that men consistently report less pain when talking to female researchers.
The experiment included men and women as participants, as well as male and female experimenters, allowing the researchers to compare each combination of the sexes during their research.
Participants had a safe but painful heat applied to their arm and they were asked to report how painful and how unpleasant it was. They also had heart rate and skin conductance monitors to check how the body reacted.
Women reported the same things to male and female experimenters but men consistently said the pain was less when talking to female staff. Importantly though, their bodily responses were no different, suggesting that the physical sensation was probably the same, they just minimised it when talking to women.
The fact that men report less pain when talking to women has been found before, but the fact the body’s reaction was no different is new and tells us that the presence of women was unlikely to have actually reduced the amount of physical suffering.
In other words, pain research that has relied just on self-report may have been affected by men trying to look macho in the lab.