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December 09, 2005

Group Differences 5

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Boys, we've all been taught, have been socialized to be stoic, where girls are raised to express their emotions. An article in The Economist complicates this picture a bit. The topic of the article (which isn't online) is how women and men experience and process pain. There are differences, and the differences seem to run very deep. Some examples:

  • Women feel pain in more bodily areas than men do, and feel it more often over the course of their lives.

  • During childbirth, women prefer nalbuphine to morphine. Men in pain report the opposite preference. In fact, men often find that drugs like nalbuphine actually make their pain worse.

It seems that women and men deal with pain differently too. Interesting passage:

"Men tend to minimise their experience of pain by concentrating on the sensory aspects -- their actual physical sensations. But this strategy did not help women, who focused more on the emotional aspects. Since the emotions associated with pain, such as fear and anxiety, tend to be negative, the researchers suggest that the female approach may actually exacerbate pain rather than alleviating it."

How much of this represents learned behavior? Some, no doubt. But it has also been established that boy and girl babies show different responses to pain as early as six hours after birth. Some scientists are so impressed by these and similar findings that they speculate that women and men process pain using different neural circuits entirely. Some even predict that it won't be long before painkillers are formulated differently for men and women. Soon to found on your local drugstore's shelves: "pink" and "blue" painkillers.

BTW, does that bit about how guys focus on physical sensations while gals tune into the emotional realm remind anyone else of what it's got me thinking about?

The Economist's website is here.



posted by Michael at December 9, 2005


Oh I remember perfectly well the phrase by FvB: "
you're not wrong, but you don't understand how MB's mind works" (or something like that); so now I have an idea what you're thinking about.

Am I right or am I right?

Posted by: Tatyana on December 9, 2005 2:17 PM

You know you're right.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 9, 2005 2:23 PM

Bah. Have a couple of 10 lb babies with no anesthetic and then we'll talk about the difference between male and female responses to pain.

Posted by: Deb on December 9, 2005 3:19 PM

My guess the response to Deb's comment is that men would be signficantly wimpier and quite scared---all their, "oh, I just think about the physical sensation and don't care about those pesky old emotions" swagger aside. I think fear is pretty primal.

Posted by: annette on December 9, 2005 4:10 PM

Actually, I think it's emotions that help to alleviate pain of labor; I know I didn't faint only by hanging to the thought it can't be good for the baby if I did. Would I just paid attention to physical sensation of pain, my son might got suffocated before seeing the light of day.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 9, 2005 4:32 PM

Just b/c some sex difference isn't present at birth doesn't mean it's learned. Take puberty. As far as we know, it's largely constrained by genetic hard-wiring, though it takes time and environmental input (mostly nutrition) to be triggered. It's not due to parental expectations, media stereotypes, or peer pressure.

Most sex differences are strongest after puberty (not surprising), so that's where we should look. By that time kids have had lots of nurture as well, but you can look to see which things are easily malleable. Names obviously are. Naming your son "Kelly" is set in stone; it won't morph into "Kevin" around age 17, nor will he likely change it legally.

But boys crying less than girls when they get rocked in gym class -- not that malleable. As a pop cult anecdote, if you've watched The Apprentice, those are some of the fiercest women in the country, and while more stoic than your average woman, they still cry more often than the men on the show. Plus, you figure these women were raised to be career-conquerors by their parents, supported as such by their academic upbringing after 2nd wave feminism, not to mention having plenty of can-do role models. So, if you observe a pronounced sex difference despite parental, academic, and media intentions trying to obliterate it, that's probably a natural difference.

If anyone seriously doubts this w/ respect to sensing pain, just have male & female boxers matched for weight and training face off against Mike Tyson and see who cries more, is visibly more shaken, and so on. This is part of why the chivalrous tradition emphasized not hitting girls even if provoked, and why men should protect women -- you'll feel less pain than she would. Only college-educated Americans seem to not understand this...

Posted by: Agnostic on December 9, 2005 6:11 PM

It makes sense that there would be similarities in how pain and pleasure are processed since the stimuli that causes either aren't always absolutes.

E.g., spending time outside in the cold will make your house seem warmer when you go in than it was before you went out even though the inside temperature hasn't changed.

Posted by: claire on December 10, 2005 4:56 PM

RE: During childbirth, women prefer nalbuphine to morphine. Men in pain report the opposite preference. In fact, men often find that drugs like nalbuphine actually make their pain worse.

Did they find some men who could give birth to test this out? OK, I know what you mean, but the conclusion here is still kind of junky. If female soldiers who have had limbs blown off prefer nalbuphine to morphine, then we might be on to something. In fact, this reminds me of the false advertising behind an old Excedrin commercial. The commercial stated that in a “major study of pain other than headache, Excedrin was shown to be significantly better than aspirin.” Yeah, the pain other than headache was post-partum pain, so the study was totally irrelevant to aches and pains which men and women have in common. You also could not even conclude anything useful about the effectiveness of Excedrin for use in headaches by women even though it worked for their post-partum pain.

I don’t disagree with the idea of group differences, but I find it maddening when folks who want to jump on this band wagon don’t think more clearly about the issue. For example, I grew up in Texas, and most of my women relatives despised the kind of teary-eyed BS that some women (and a few men) indulge in. One great-aunt used to deride this as “turning on the waterworks.” But other Southern (non Texan) women were firm believers in the power of tears, especially when it came to handling men. I have also noted that some Latinas, like their menfolk, make a big deal about being able to endure pain and not crying. Still, I think that people who believe that this stuff is only or primarily cultural are smoking something, but those who ignore cultural influences are also confusing the issue.

Also, there is some evidence to suggest that men cry more as they get older, especially after age 40 when testosterone production dips, and that in fact as certain hormone levels in both men and women decline as we age, we become more alike in some ways. This also suggests that old men and young men, and old women and young women, might be seen as different “groups” for some purposes.

Posted by: Alec on December 11, 2005 2:52 AM

Alec -- The Economist's treatment of the question was anything but comprehensive. It left the impression, though, that the studies had been looked at pretty thoroughly from a variety of angles. And they don't minimize the impact of culture. (All those short Peruvian mountain women look about as stoic as a person can be, for instance.) For what that's worth, of course. Like you, I think hormones and age probably play big roles. Guys who have been dosed with lots of female hormones in order to fight prostate cancer, for instance, nearly all find themselves becoming moody and weepy. And women who have been put on lotsa male hormones tend to become much more sexually predatory than usual. I wonder if their experience of pain changes too. So maybe in a few decades there'll be blue and pink pain pills, but maybe also "phase of life" pain pills too. Anything that can be done to deal with pain more successfully is OK with me, that's for sure.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 11, 2005 1:15 PM

Michael – Good points, and I will have to track down that Economist article. People tend to forget that men and women have both “male” and “female” hormones coursing through their bodies and that it’s the proportion that makes life fun. Science writer Natalie Angier made the following points:

-- From age 12 to 50, women have 3 to 10 times more estrogen circulating through the bloodstream than men, but after 50 a man’s gradually rises as a woman’s declines.

-- A number of researchers have suggested that it is testosterone not estrogen that is the true hormone of the libido in men and women alike. But the evidence suggests that for women, testosterone is the “hand- maiden” to estrogen

Hormones, genes, culture, chance all help make us human.

By the way, the current New York Times Magazine, available online as part of, has a fun little “Ideas” piece on research suggesting that the gene that makes redheads may also give them a higher degree of pain tolerance than their blonde or brunette peers (“Stoic Redheads”).

Posted by: Alec on December 11, 2005 2:26 PM

Funnily enough, the Economist piece mentioned that bit about redheads too. There isn't a lot more in the Economist piece than we've touched on here, though. I wonder what the meatier science publications have to say about the topic. Do you like Angier generally? I've always found her very annoying. She's obviously got herself a bagful of interesting facts. But it always seemed to me that her NYT-feminist agenda overrode everything else she might have to pass along. She always seemed to me like "primarily a media feminist who happens to use science to bolster her case" than like "someone who loves to follow, make sense of, and pass along what she finds out about science." Does her work not strike you that way?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 11, 2005 4:24 PM

Michael – Four things redeem Natalie Angier for me. She writes clearly and intelligently; she often picked interesting and provocative topics to write about in her New York Times columns; and she would fairly explicate the scientific issues raised by her columns even if she disagreed with their conclusions. Most importantly, since she often tried to clearly identify scientists and the nature of their research, interested readers could bypass any of Angier’s biases and dig into the information for themselves. By the way, I think that Angier clearly steered clear of any feminist bias in her review of John Colapinto’s “As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl,” a book which clearly demolished the idea that gender is purely a social construction.

On the other hand, I find that many newspaper and magazine science writers don’t understand enough about science to even get the basics right. I can filter out bias, but have no patience for intellectual muddle.

Posted by: Alec on December 11, 2005 6:41 PM

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