Study: Whites Think Black People Feel Less Pain

Racial disparities exist, but what causes them can be complicated. Harvard anthropology student Jason Silverstein says it has to do with a lack of empathy. Host Michel Michel Martin talks with Silverstein about a Slate article he wrote titled, 'I Don't Feel Your Pain.'

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we have another guest who has a very interesting perspective on what we just talked about. He says that a lot of racist behavior may stem from the belief held by many white people that African-Americans do not actually feel as much pain. Jason Silverstein looked into what he calls the racial empathy gap as part of his work with Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research. He wrote about this in the recent Slate article "I Don't Feel Your Pain," and he's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JASON SILVERSTEIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now you drew, for your piece in Slate, on research that was actually published in May of 2011. It was published in Italy. And in the piece, you said that when white people were shown a picture of a white person in pain, they actually reacted differently than they did when the person was black. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

SILVERSTEIN: Sure. So basically what had happened was the researchers decided to show a group of participants videos, videos of people who were experiencing the same stimuli. One was very painful, or at least might appear to be, a needle touching their skin. And another was potentially harmless, just an eraser. And it turned out that when viewers saw the white people receiving a painful stimuli, they responded much more dramatically than they did for black people. This wasn't the only time we've seen this. We've seen this in other studies, as well. And this is basically what we call the racial empathy gap.

MARTIN: But you also noted that, you know, that African-Americans also experienced this, that they also - that there have been studies that've shown that African-Americans also don't react as strongly when they are shown pictures of black people in pain. Why might that be? And, I mean...

SILVERSTEIN: Sure.

MARTIN: You think there's a global explanation. And what is the global explanation for why that is, the theory?

SILVERSTEIN: Well, there was a follow-up that was done, and it basically then tried to look at white people, it tried to look at black people and it also tried to look at nurses and nursing students 'cause this is a big problem that we have with black people not getting pain medicine when they need it the most. And what these researchers found was that all of the participants, white, black, nurses, nursing students, all assumed that black people felt less pain than white people.

And what they said was, well, it doesn't really make sense to say that racial prejudice or animosity is entirely to blame here. It may be something else. And when they pressed on this, they started to see that it had a lot to do with whether or not participants assumed that black people in the study had faced more hardship or more adversity. And basically, what they ended up seeing was that they felt that black people could just sort of take more pain. And we can see how this - it just creates this cycle of pain, then. Right?

We have this assumption that because black people have been hardened by certain life experiences, that they can deal with more pain or they feel it less intensely, and therefore, they're forced to endure even more. So this was a very surprising result that we have here that shows us how this sort of works in a cycle.

MARTIN: And you were saying that the implications of this go far beyond administering pain medication.

SILVERSTEIN: Sure, sure. You know, I think that, look, if we can see that people generally assume that black people feel less pain, you can imagine all of the different social problems that this explains. One area is healthcare, but it's also the criminal justice system. We know that race and empathy impact jury decisions, and we know that black defendants receive harsher sentences for the same crimes. But in particular, if we take a close look at the juvenile justice system, what we start to see is that young youth of color are being tried much more aggressively than white youth. And why is this? We've also seen research that it's because there's a certain perception that black juveniles are not treated as innocents.

They're not treated with compassion. But at every stage, they're treated much more like adults and therefore subjected to harsher treatments, tried in adult courts and given adult sentences for things that, for white students or white juveniles, would be just written off as perhaps pranks or something that could be a slap on the wrist.

MARTIN: What could be done about this? We only have about a minute left. Is there something that...

SILVERSTEIN: Sure.

MARTIN: You're suggesting that, really, this is so - this is unconscious. This is not a conscious decision. This is something that's somehow embedded. What can be done about this? We only have about a minute, but if you can.

SILVERSTEIN: Well, if we know that a lack of empathy helps explain the disparities, then it may also be true that we can induce empathy to get people to care. And we've seen evidence of this. We've seen that when researchers try to push people to take perspective of another person, then this can help reduce pain treatment disparities.

I would also add that we need to do something fundamentally about how we think about that perspective and how we need to stop stereotyping what people's perspectives are because when we do, we do a really bad job of taking care of each other.

MARTIN: Writer Jason Silverstein is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Harvard University. We caught up with him at the studios there. Jason Silverstein, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SILVERSTEIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Once again, his piece is titled "I Don't Feel Your Pain: A failure of empathy perpetuates racial disparities." It was published recently in Slate.

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