The racial empathy gap

By Guest Contributor Lisa Wade, PhD; originally published at Sociological Images

In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I proctored law school exams to earn extra money.  At the end of one exam, while I was collecting the final papers, I overheard two students discussing their answers on an essay question about sentencing.  One said to the other: “I gave the rich guy a lesser sentence because I figured, since he had such a cushy life, it would take less punishment to get through to him.”  There’s your next crop of lawyers, I thought, doling out the prison sentences to the poor and letting the rich off with a slap on the wrist.

Well, it turns out that there is a well-documented psychological phenomenon behind what I’d overheard.  Morten B. sent along an essay by Jason Silverstein in which he reviews the literature on the racial empathy gap.  All things being equal, if you show a person an imagine of a dark- and a light-skinned person being harmed, they will most likely react more strongly to the latter.  Studies have found evidence of this using both self-report and measures of brain activity.  Notably, both Black and White people  respond similarly.

Here are the results of six studies using self-report; in the first four, the relationship between race and how much pain subjects attributed to the target was statistically significant:


What’s going on?

Silverstein explains that this isn’t necessarily about racial animosity or even identification with one’s own group (remember that both Black and White people show this response). Instead, it appears to be related to the perception that Black people have already had to cope with a great deal of pain — from racism, poverty, poor health, etc — and, as a result, have a greater pain threshold.  In other words, they are less sensitive to pain because they’ve been hardened.

Efforts to parse out whether this effect is due to race specifically or perceptions of whether a person has lived a hard life suggest that it might be primarily the latter.  But, as Silverstein points out, we tend to homogenize the Black population and assume that all Black people face adversity.  So, whether the phenomenon is caused by race or status gets pretty muddy pretty fast.

In any case, this is perfectly in line with the soon-t0-be-lawyer I overheard at Wisconsin.  He gave the “hardened criminal” a harsher sentence than the person convicted of a white-collar crime because he believed that a greater degree of suffering was required to make an impact.  That was just a hypothetical case, but Silverstein reviews research that shows that the racial empathy gap has real world consequences: undertreatment of pain (even in children) and, yes, harsher sentences for African Americans convicted of crimes.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter andFacebook.

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  • Peter Ore

    How did they come to the conclusion that this was due to perceptions of dark-skinned people as having lived a “hard life” and therefore having a higher pain tolerance? Couldn’t this just be a symptom of dehumanization?

    • robobt

      I think that’s what people self-report to justify their responses. But it’s not a huge leap to say that those two things are pretty closely connected. I could say that I punch a punching bag instead of a person, at least in part, because I don’t think the punching bag is being hurt by it. It makes it less wrong to do more horrible things to x, and to sit back and allow more horrible things to happen to x, to believe that x will be less affected by them. That’s a scary and depressing thought. And especially when it’s internalized.

    • Cris

      Ya. I think the attempt to bring peoples perceptions of blacks as not feeling (as much) pain in to an objective space, and out of the realm of racism, suspect at best. Look at the history of violence against the black community and the justifications of that violence. It’s not that complicated.

    • Juan Miller

      If you click over to the article and go down to Experiments 5 and 6, those are the ones where they investigated that issue. It describes their methods and findings there.

      • Peter Ore

        Thanks. I neglected to read that. It still seems reasonable to me that lack of empathy for lower-status individuals could account for the perceived pain tolerance (and the corollary in higher status individuals) rather than the attribution of “toughness”.

  • Juan Miller

    This reminds me of something I heard in Michael Moore’s DVD commentary on his documentary Roger & Me. There’s a scene that shows a rabbit being butchered, and a few minutes later, unrelatedly, there is footage of a black man (armed only with a toy gun) being shot by the police. Moore commented that many people have approached him and said that they were shocked and horrified by the scene of the rabbit being slaughtered — “that poor bunny!” — but so far none had ever mentioned the scene of the black man being shot as especially disturbing.

    I think what he noticed is exactly what this article talks about. We see a bunny as innocent and vulnerable, but we see a black man as tough and accustomed to mistreatment. We expect to see black people harmed, so when it happens before our eyes, there is no shock to register. We’re jaded to it.

  • Val

    This study and most others about “race” make me feel pain. Sigh. I think studies were invented to make Black folks feel bad. Especially since they don’t seem to lead to any sort of change.