Observer influences on pain: an experimental series examining same-sex and opposite-sex friends, strangers, and romantic partners

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Abstract

Despite the well-documented sex and gender differences, little is known about the relative impact of male–female social interactions on pain. Three experiments were conducted to investigate whether the type of interpersonal relationship men and women have with an observer affects how they respond to experimental pain. Study 1 recruited friends and strangers, study 2 examined the effects of same- and opposite-sex friends, whereas study 3 investigated the differences between opposite-sex friends and opposite-sex romantic partners. One hundred forty-four dyads were recruited (48 in each study). One person from each dyad completed 2 pain tasks, whereas the other person observed in silence. Overall, the presence of another person resulted in an increase in pain threshold and tolerance on the cold-pressor task and algometer. The sex status of the dyads also had a role, but only within the friendship groups. In particular, male friends had the most pronounced effect on men's pain, increasing pain tolerance. We suggest that the presence of an observer, their sex, and the nature of the participant–observer relationship all influence how pain is reported. Further research should focus on dyadic relationships, and their influence on how men and women report and communicate pain in specific contexts.

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