I Don’t Feel Your Pain

Jason Silverstein, Slate, June 27, 2013

George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin because he perceived him as dangerous. The defense argues he was, the prosecution argues he wasn’t. No one, of course, argues that Zimmerman approached Martin with kindness, or stopped to consider the boy as anything other than suspicious, an outsider. Ultimately Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. A lack of empathy can produce national tragedies. But it also drives quieter, more routine forms of discrimination.

Let’s do a quick experiment. You watch a needle pierce someone’s skin. Do you feel this person’s pain? Does it matter if the person’s skin is white or black?

For many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap. To study it, researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca showed participants (all of whom were white) video clips of a needle or an eraser touching someone’s skin. They measured participants’ reactions through skin conductance tests—basically whether their hands got sweaty—which reflect activity in the pain matrix of the brain. If we see someone in pain, it triggers the same network in our brains that’s activated when we are hurt. But people do not respond to the pain of others equally. In this experiment, when viewers saw white people receiving a painful stimulus, they responded more dramatically than they did for black people.

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.”


 Consider disparities in treatment for pain. We’ve known for at least two decades that minorities, primarily blacks and Hispanics, receive inadequate pain medication. Often this failure comes when people need help the most. For example, an early study of this disparity revealed that minorities with recurrent or metastatic cancer were less likely to have adequate analgesia. Racial disparities in pain management have been recorded in the treatment of migraines and back paincancer care in the elderly, and children with orthopedic fractures. A 2008 review of 13 years of national survey data on emergency room visits found that for a pain-related visit, an opioid prescription was more likely for white patients (31 percent) than black patients (23 percent).


The racial empathy gap is also a problem of our criminal justice system. Consider research on the impact of race on jury decisions. A 2002 experiment showed the power of race, empathy, and punishment. The researchers asked 90 white students to act as jurors and evaluate a larceny case. The manipulation, as you might suspect, is whether the defendant was black or white. But before jurors decided the defendant’s fate, they participated in an “empathy induction task.” Some jurors were assigned to a high-empathy condition and asked to imagine themselves in the defendant’s position. Other jurors were assigned to a low-empathy condition and asked to simply remain objective. Ultimately, the jurors gave black defendants harsher sentences (4.17 years) than whites (3.04 years)—even in the high-empathy condition (3.26 years versus 2.20 years, respectively)—and felt less empathy for black defendants.

This helps explain harsh sentencing in juvenile justice. Nationwide, youth of color are treated more harshly than their white peers. What is a prank for a white student is often treated as a zero-tolerance offense by a minority student. Minority students are more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension, even if they have a disability, more likely to be referred by their schools to law enforcement, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be tried in adult court, and more likely to receive a harsh sentence. {snip}


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