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“Big girls don’t cry”: The effect of the experimenter’s sex and pain catastrophising on pain

Vo, L.ORCID: 0000-0002-2714-5387 and Drummond, P.D.ORCID: 0000-0002-3711-8737 (2021) “Big girls don’t cry”: The effect of the experimenter’s sex and pain catastrophising on pain. Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 21 (3). pp. 617-627.

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The expression of pain in males and females involves complex socio-psychological mechanisms. Males may report lower pain to a female experimenter to appear strong, whereas females may report higher pain to a male experimenter to appear weak and to seek protection. However, evidence to support these stereotypes is inconclusive. Individuals who catastrophise about pain rate higher pain than those who do not. How pain catastrophising interacts with the effect of the experimenter’s sex on pain reports is yet to be explored. Thus, the aim of this study was to determine whether pain catastrophising moderated the effect of the experimenter’s sex on pain reports in healthy males and females.


Participants (n=60, 30 males) were assigned to one of four experimental conditions: males tested by male experimenters, males tested by female experimenters, females tested by male experimenters, and females tested by female experimenters. Participants completed the Pain Catastrophising Scale, and then sensitivity to heat and to blunt (pressure-pain threshold) and sharp stimuli was assessed on both forearms, and to high frequency electrical stimulation (HFS) administered to one forearm.


Females reported lower pressure-pain thresholds than males irrespective of the experimenters’ sex. Females reported lower sharpness ratings to male than female experimenters only when the test stimuli were moderately or intensely sharp. Higher pain catastrophising scores were associated with higher sharpness ratings in females but not males. Additionally, higher pain catastrophising scores were associated with greater temporal summation of pain to HFS, and with lower pressure-pain thresholds in females who were tested by male experimenters.


These findings indicate that the experimenters’ sex and the participant’s pain catastrophising score influence pain reports, particularly in females. Awareness of these psychosocial factors is important in order to interpret pain responses in a meaningful way, especially when females are tested by male experimenters. A greater awareness of sex/gender role biases and their potential interaction with pain catastrophising may help researchers and clinicians to interpret pain reports in meaningful ways. In turn, this may help to improve delivery of treatments for patients with chronic pain.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Psychology, Counselling, Exercise Science and Chiropractic
Publisher: De Gruyter OPEN
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