The racial empathy gap (Participation)

The racial empathy gap

By On September 3, 2013 ·

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.


2 thoughts on “The racial empathy gap (Participation)

  1. As I was reading this post I was able to connect to one of the main points we keep covering in lecture, that Racism has been socially constructed. This is shown through this study because the experiment reflects on the fact that in our world today, much of society has been taught to think a certain way about specific groups of people. But this way of thinking varies between groups of people, although there is not much of a variation. As seen in this study, Black and White people were both used as subjects and yet none of the subjects had a more heightened reaction to the darker skinned person being harmed. Linda Wade’s point that “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”, seemed to prove the point that the way we think of race is all based on perception. As a society we base and assume things that have not been proven and in all actuality the light skinned person being harmed could have experienced more violence or pain in their life than that of the darker skinned person. I agree with her in all aspects and think this is a great example of how Race is all based on social construction of ideals surrounding a generalization of groups of people.

    • The social construct of racism is present all around our world today. In this experiment, blacks were seen as “hardened criminals” by how society today perceives them as general violent individuals that are constantly looking for ways to break the laws. While statistically speaking, a majority of criminals are not white, this increases the opportunity for individuals to base their opinion solely on race social construct. It’s ridiculous how we can never seem to accept those among us because when it comes down to it, we all make mistakes, but I feel that blacks and those of other races and cultures are seen as to never learn from their mistakes, based on the social construct that we have created in our modern day world.

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