Men, Women, and Pain

January 28, 2012 BY danariely

If you’ve been to the doctor’s office recently with any kind of complaint, it’s likely you were asked to rate the pain you were experiencing on a scale from 0 to 10 (being the worst pain possible). Well, a group of researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine recently analyzed the self-reported pain measurements from 11,000 medical records from 2007-2010 and discovered something surprising: women report greater levels of pain than men for the same injuries and ailments.

In The Upside of Irrationality, I briefly discussed a disagreement I had with a professor about the difference in pain tolerance between men and women. My professor, Ina Weiner, maintained the view that women have a higher tolerance in order to cope with childbirth, and she was unimpressed by the story I told about a woman I’d met in the burn unit who confided in me that the pain of her burns was far worse than what she experienced in childbirth. As you might expect, I decided to run a small experiment, and asked the men and women who passed by my cubicle (where I worked as a research assistant) to submerge a hand in hot water and keep it there until the pain became unbearable. Meanwhile, I timed them and recorded their gender.

The next day in class I was excited to describe my experiment and to report that the men who participated kept their hand in the hot water for much longer than the women.  Professor Weiner replied that all I’d proven was that men were stupider—after all, who would subject themselves to such pain just for my silly study? Naturally this took the wind out of my sails, and I left the subject alone after that.

But as it turns out, the women analyzed in this study reported more intense pain—an average of about 20% more—for equal-opportunity afflictions ranging from neck and back pain to viral Hepatitis. While the experience of pain and the way people report it is inevitably subjective (for instance, the presence of a concerned family member might lead someone to downplay their pain), it’s likely that the large number of people included in the analysis counterbalances social and individual differences.

And while I would never say “I told you so” to a former teacher, I do hope that this research might make its way somehow to Professor Weiner.

For the original paper, click here.