Intelli Search:
Back to: Psychology

Perceived Pain Tolerance and Self-Efficacy
in Men Versus Women


The Study

       Do men and women differ in how they see their abilities to withstand pain?  If so, how do they differ in setting pain-tolerance goals for themselves and which sex is more likely to meet and/or exceed set goals?  These questions relate to the idea of self-efficacy.  Psychologist, Albert Bandura (1997) defines self-efficacy as “beliefs in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (p. 3). 

       Bandura has conducted many studies in the past that explore the idea of self-efficacy.  In a study that looked at the relationship between perceived self-efficacy and pain control (Bandura, Oleary, Taylor, Gauthier, Gossard, 1987), it was discovered that perceived self-efficacy to both withstand and reduce pain were made stronger with training in cognitive control.  Also, the stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the longer the participants were able to withstand the pain stimuli.  Another study investigated how strenuous activity performed with either goals and performance feedback, goals alone, feedback alone, or neither affected motivation and effort (Bandura, Cervone, 1983).  Results showed that the activity performed with both performance feedback and goals had a strong motivational impact.  In addition, intensification of effort increased the higher the level of self-dissatisfaction with subsequent performance and the stronger the perceived self-efficacy for accomplishing goals.  A different study looked at how self-efficacy beliefs impact children’s aspirations and career paths (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 2001).  Results showed that the children’s perceived self- efficacy, not academic accomplishment, was more important in determining their perceived occupational self-efficacy and favored occupational choices.

       In a study conducted by Daniel Lowery, Roger B. Fillingim, and Rex A. Wright (2003), eighty-one male and female undergraduate college students were put into one of two groups.  The first group was given a low monetary incentive for every fifteen seconds he/she could keep their hand submerged in ice water and the other group was given a high monetary incentive for every fifteen seconds he/she could keep their hand submerged in ice water.  Based on the times of submergence and the data collected from questionnaires, results showed that males had higher pain thresholds and females supplied higher ratings of pain after thirty seconds of being submerged and also on the questionnaire following. However, the incentive condition had no significant effect on pain responses.  In another cold-pressor task study conducted by Matthew T. Feldner and Hamid Hekmat (2001), it was investigated as to the extent perceived control over anxiety-related events contributes to the experience of pain.  It was discovered that pain tolerance and endurance, but not pain intensity or threshold, were predicted by perceived control over anxiety-related events.  An additional study involved cold-pressor task, but instead looked at how perceived control and distraction affected pain experienced (Bennett & Boehm, 1997).  Participants were divided into three groups: perceived control group, distraction-task group, and control group.  The perceived-control group was led to believe they could control the temperature of the water.  Results showed that participants in both the perceived control and distraction groups had significantly lower pain ratings than the control group.

       A recent study sought to determine whether or not postoperative pain is a self-fulfilling prophecy (Logan & Rose, 2005).  Findings showed that teens who expected higher levels of postoperative pain ended up experiencing higher levels of pain.  In another pain study involving African American and Caucasian men and women, results show that African Americans rated the pain stimuli as more unpleasant and more intense than Caucasians.  The study also showed that women tended to rate stimuli as more unpleasant and intense than men (Sheffield, Biles, Orom, Maixner & Sheps, 2000).  A study conducted by Saba Rasheed Ali, Ellen Hawley McWhirter, and Krista M. Chronister (2005) examined self-efficacy of adolescents of lower socioeconomic status.  They found that vocational and educational self-efficacy beliefs were significantly affected by sibling and peer support.  Also, vocational and educational self-efficacy beliefs significantly predicted expectations of vocational outcome.  Another study conducted by Mark D. Litt (1988) looked at the relationship between self-efficacy, perceived control, and pain tolerance in women.  His findings imply that self-efficacy changes affect the outcome in cold-pressor tolerance and tolerance was best if accompanied by high levels of self-efficacy and perceived control.  This suggests that those who are most confident in their control show the most control.

       Many different topics pertaining to self-efficacy have been covered in previous research.    Some studies have sought to teach us about the importance of self-efficacy on motivation and performance and various ways to increase self-efficacy levels.  Previous research has examined the effect of self-efficacy on social issues, like how it impacts children’s aspirations and career choices and also medical issues dealing with subject matter such as postoperative pain.  For this current study, we will be examining pain tolerance differences in male and female participants.  Like Litt’s 1988 study, we will be studying the connection between self-efficacy, or self-expectation, and actual performance.  However, we will be focusing on the differences in male and female predictions of pain tolerance and their actual pain tolerance performance. 
Based on results of previous research, we hypothesize that men will show a higher pain tolerance than women.  In terms of the subjects’ expectations of their pain tolerance performance, we predict that men will set higher expectations for themselves than women and men will be more likely to meet and/or exceed those set expectations.  Specifically, we hypothesize that men will be likely to predict an above-average pain-tolerance time for themselves, while females will be likely to predict an average pain-tolerance time.  The purpose of this study is to achieve a better understanding of not only pain-tolerance, but goal expectation, or self-efficacy, differences in males and females.



Ali, S.R., McWhirter, E.H., & Chronister, K.M. (2005). Self-efficacy and vocational outcome expectations for adolescents of lower socioeconomic status: a pilot study. Journal of Career Assessment, 13, 40-58.

Bandura, A. & Cervone, D. (1983). Self-evaluative and self-efficacy mechanisms governing the motivational effects of goal systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 1017-1028.

Bandura, A., Oleary, A., Taylor, C.B., Gauthier, J., & Gossard, D. (1987). Perceived self- efficacy and pain control: opioid and nonopioid mechanisms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 563-571.

Bandura A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: WH Freeman and Company.

Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G.V., & Pastorelli. (2001). Self-efficacy beliefs as shapers of children's aspirations and career trajectories. Child Development, 72, 187-206.

Bennet, M. & Boehm, L. (1997). Perceived control and distraction in the cold-pressor test. Psi Chi Journal, 2(3). Retrieved February 16, 2005 from

Feldner, M.T. & Hekmat, H. (2001). Perceived control over anxiety-related events as a predictor of pain behaviors in a cold pressor task. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 32, 191-202.

Litt, M.D. (1988). Self-efficacy and perceived control: cognitive mediators of pain tolerance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 149-160.

Logan, D.E. & Rose, J.B. (2005). Is postoperative pain a self-fulfilling prophecy? Expectancy effects on postoperative pain and patient-controlled analgesia use among adolescent surgical patients. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 30, 187-196.

Lowery, D., Fillingim, R.B., & Wright, R.A. (2003). Sex differences and incentive effects on perceptual and cardiovascular responses to cold pressor pain. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 284-291.

Sheffield, D., Biles, P.L., Orom, H., Maixner, W., & Sheps, D.S. (2000). Race and sex differences in cutaneous pain perception. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 517-523.