What is it about?

This study suggests an explanation for the advantage women have in recognizing and evaluating emotions and pain experienced by others. Several theoretical frameworks have attempted to explain this sex difference. Here, we wanted to verify whether women use different visual information from the face than men. By comparing the areas of the face used by men and women to discriminate between varying intensities of expressions of pain, this study raises two sex differences in the visual strategies used. First, it corroborates the woman advantage, women are indeed more efficient at discriminating expression intensities, requiring less visual information than men. Second, it suggests that women rely on larger regions of the face, which seems to completely mediate their advantage. Two hypotheses could explain these results. Women could integrate more efficiently information from different areas of the face, thus processing the face as a whole. Alternatively they could be more flexible in the use of information contained in these areas. In this case, if one part of the face is not accessible, they will be able to use another almost as efficiently. Women would then opt for a more holistic or flexible processing of facial information, while men would rely on a specific but rigid integration strategy.

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Why is it important?

Efficient communication of pain has been tied to the evolution of the human race as in some situations, it can become a matter of life and death for the person experiencing it. It is therefore important to identify which factors could hinder or facilitate this process ​​— in this case, the biological sex of the observer. Before we can put in place effective action plans to facilitate the non-verbal communication of pain, notably in the fields of health or public safety, we must understand how it works.


Now we know that men and women process the emotional signal differently, but we must disentangle if these perceptual differences have biological bases (innate) or if they are acquired during development. For example, cerebral dimorphism found between men and women, such as the size of our visual cortex ​​— the visual cortex being generally smaller in women ​​— might lead us to see the world differently. It could also be a matter of children’s socialization. For example, it has been shown that parents tend to use more emotional words with their daughters than with their sons. Women under these developmental pressures might develop a particular interest and expertise in the visual information that seems the most adaptive, such as facial expressions of emotion.

Marie-Pier Plouffe-Demers
Universite du Quebec a Montreal

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Facial expression of pain: Sex differences in the discrimination of varying intensities., Emotion, September 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/emo0001156.
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