Exploring sex differences in pain expression communication

  • E. Keogh
  • F. Cheng
  • S. Wang


Background: Being able to recognize someone is in pain is a fundamental aspect of caregiving. Pain is subjective, and so we rely on verbal and nonverbal cues. There are sex and gender differences in pain, and nonverbal expression recognition. However, direct evidence for sex differences in pain expression communication is limited. One reason could be due to the methods adopted, which often rely on recognition identification. The aim of the current study was to examine sex differences in pain expression recognition, utilizing an attentional bias task. Methods: 53 adults (27 female) completed an attentional dot probe task, which comprises of male and female actors presenting facial expressions (pain, fear, and neutral). This task determines whether attention orients towards or away from a target, relative to a neutral, expression. There were two versions of the task: stimuli were presented for either 150msec or 1250msec. Findings: An interaction between participant sex and expression type was found (F(1,49)=4.49, p<.05). Females showed a relative bias towards pain compared to fear expressions, whereas in males the opposite was found. An interaction was found between participant sex and stimulus duration (F(1,49)=4.30, p<.05). Females showed a general bias away from emotional expressions at shorter durations, but towards them when durations were longer. Discussion: This study suggests that sex differences exist in the recognition of pain expressions. It also indicates the utility in adopting specific tests of attentional processing. The next step is to examine whether such biases effect the judgements people make about those in pain.