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“Blacks just don’t feel pain like White people do”

Friday, November 8, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

african_american_arthritisAs absurd and biased as that may sound, it is something that many (both White and Black Americans) currently believe. An archival review and six separate experiments (with a total of 876 research participants) show this biased belief system.

This particular research is examining disparities in healthcare and the authors review the higher rates of disease, disability and death in the Black American community. Black Americans are more likely to receive lower quality healthcare and have less desirable medical procedures done, are 3x more likely to have limbs amputated as the result of diabetes, and are systematically under-treated for pain as compared to White patients. While racial bias has been suggested as a reason for this health care disparity, (that is, people assume Blacks feel less pain than Whites), the current researchers suggest that Black pain is simply not seen by the health care provider (due to the basic belief that Blacks do not feel pain in the same way Whites do).

The researchers began with an archival study using the National Football League’s 2010 and 2011 injury reports. Whenever a player is injured, coaches and medical personnel evaluate the injuries and rate the likelihood the player will be able to play the following week. The researchers hypothesized that if Black players were assumed to feel less pain, they would be rated as more likely to play after injury in comparison to White players. And they were correct. (The researchers discuss the fact there may be other variables at play. Perhaps Black players want to play even though injured or perhaps they have been trained to play “through the pain”.)

The researchers then conducted six separate experiments (you can read them all here), and in each case, the results support the view that experimental subjects assumed Blacks feel less pain than do Whites. The researchers refer briefly to the research showing that White Americans “condone police brutality against Black men relative to White men”. They also refer to the research on Whites not being as distressed seeing harm inflicted on Black people as they are when harm is inflicted on White people.

“While it may be that some Whites do not care about Black people and their pain, it may also be the case that at least some Whites fail to realize that Black people feel as much pain as White people. Although still alarming, this explanation is decidedly different from the claim that White people simply do not care about Blacks.”

It is a disturbing set of experiments about issues often referred to as the racial empathy gap. We’ve written a lot about bias on this blog, and about racial bias in particular, so this isn’t new information, it’s simply more to add to the pile. We wonder how much long-standing tendencies to dehumanize Black Americans are at the root of the assumption Blacks just don’t feel pain like White Americans do. As a society, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Trawalter S, Hoffman KM, & Waytz A (2012). Racial bias in perceptions of others’ pain. PloS one, 7 (11) PMID: 23155390

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