Empathy means being able to understand the thoughts and feelings ... including pain ... of other people and is fundamental in interpersonal life. Empirical research shows automatic responses to the pain of others, reactions that are affected by personality, social relationship with the target, ingroup vs outgroup social categorisation, familiarity for the target, perceived similarity, gender, age, and skin colour.
In their study, Forgiarini et al. examined people's reactions (skin conductance tests) to others' pain depending on skin colour by showing actors experiencing the painful stimuli.
The present research is aimed at providing experimental evidence that automatic, physiological reactions to other people's pain strongly depends on the race of the person in pain, such that pain received by members of other racial groups elicits a much weaker reaction compared with the pain suffered by members of the same group. By presenting participants with a series of video clips, in two experiments we tested whether the reaction to pain of Caucasian (Italian) observers was influenced by the race (Caucasian, Asian, or African) of the person in pain. In the second study we replicate this finding and show that the moderation of empathy is correlated with the individual implicit racial biases.
Results showed that, in general, participants showed significantly greater reactions to painful stimuli than to harmless stimuli. Interestingly, the effect was moderated by the actor's skin colour. Empathic reactios for actors with white skin colour were significantly greater than for actors with black skin colour.
Taken together our findings demonstrate a clear pattern of responses to pain: the extent to which Caucasian observers share the pain experience of other people is affected by the race of the person in pain (Figure (Figure4A).4A). Before the stimulus onset, the SCR values show stochastic variations. After observing a painful stimulus administered to the target person, participants’ SCR values increase more for Caucasian targets than for target people of the other races, and the least for African targets. (Forgiarini, Gallucci & Maravita, 2011)
Possible explanations (literally via):
The racial empathy gap helps explain disparities in everything from pain management to the criminal justice system. But the problem isn’t just that people disregard the pain of black people. It’s somehow even worse. The problem is that the pain isn’t even felt.
A recent study shows that people, including medical personnel, assume black people feel less pain than white people. The researchers asked participants to rate how much pain they would feel in 18 common scenarios. The participants rated experiences such as stubbing a toe or getting shampoo in their eyes on a four-point scale (where 1 is “not painful” and 4 is “extremely painful”). Then they rated how another person (a randomly assigned photo of an experimental “target”) would feel in the same situations. Sometimes the target was white, sometimes black. In each experiment, the researchers found that white participants, black participants, and nurses and nursing students assumed that blacks felt less pain than whites.
But the researchers did not believe racial prejudice was entirely to blame. After all, black participants also displayed an empathy gap toward other blacks. What could possibly be the explanation for why black people’s pain is underestimated?
It turns out assumptions about what it means to be black—in terms of social status and hardship—may be behind the bias. In additional experiments, the researchers studied participants’ assumptions about adversity and privilege. The more privilege assumed of the target, the more pain the participants perceived. Conversely, the more hardship assumed, the less pain perceived. The researchers concluded that “the present work finds that people assume that, relative to whites, blacks feel less pain because they have faced more hardship.”
This gives us some insight into how racial disparities are created—and how they are sustained. First, there is an underlying belief that there is a single black experience of the world. Because this belief assumes blacks are already hardened by racism, people believe black people are less sensitive to pain. Because they are believed to be less sensitive to pain, black people are forced to endure more pain.
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- Forgiarini, M., Gallucci, M. & Maravita, A. (2011). Racism and the Empathy for Pain on Our Skin. Frontiers in Psychology, link
- photograph by John J. White (Chicago, 1973, George Westinghouse High School) via