Our Perceptions of Other People’s Social Pain Are Affected by Their Race
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Daily life comes with its share of slights and social pains. Some of these pains are small, like when a coworker tells a joke at our expense or when we spill a drink on ourselves in public. But some are bigger, such as when we are dumped by a romantic partner or learn we weren’t invited to a friend’s party. Social pains—the distress and negative emotions caused by hurtful experiences with other people—are a common part of everyday life. As Michael Stipe of the band R.E.M. once sang, “Everybody hurts, sometimes.”
Given that socially painful experiences happen to everyone, we might assume that everybody feels similar amounts of social pain when they experience the same upsetting event. However, our research suggests that how much pain we think other people will feel depends on their race.
For decades, psychologists have known that we immediately notice features about people such as their gender, age, and most relevant to our research, race. Those group memberships can then lead us to apply stereotypes to the people we see. People may be particularly likely to share their stereotypes when they seem positive and complimentary. For example, people may be willing to voice stereotypes such as “women are caring” and “Black people are tough.” But even these seemingly positive stereotypes can be harmful. Specifically, this latter stereotype about Black people’s toughness can be problematic because it may lead us to underestimate Black individuals’ pain.
Why do people assume Black people are tough? Well, most people realize that Black Americans generally face more adversity than White Americans, and people believe that adversity can make people stronger. When these two ideas are put together, they become a recipe for underestimating Black people’s social pain. In a harmful paradox, recognizing Black people’s adversity and past hurts might lead us to minimize their present distress.
We conducted some studies to test the above reasoning. We showed research participants photographs of a number of White and Black individuals and asked them to judge how much adversity they thought each person had experienced in their life. Participants then judged how painful each individual would find a set of hurtful social events such as being dumped by their romantic partners, derogated by coworkers, and ostracized on their birthday.
Our results showed that participants believed that Black individuals experienced more adversity than White individuals, and they also expected that Black individuals would experience less social pain than White individuals if they experienced the hypothetical events. These results provide some evidence that people use others’ race when judging others’ social pain and assume that these painful experiences are less distressing to Black than White individuals.
Importantly, this bias wasn’t limited to White participants but occurred among Black participants too. Black participants may also show this bias for three reasons. First, everyone in a culture knows their culture’s stereotypes, so Black individuals may share the stereotype that “Black people are tough and resilient.” Second, “toughness and resilience” seem to be positive characteristics, traits that black participants might want to endorse. Third, among Black Americans, “resilience and fortitude” play important roles in past and present battles for equality and civil rights and, thus, are of particular cultural significance. Consistent with this thinking, Black participants showed the same racial bias as White participants to assume that Black individuals would be hurt by negative social events. In fact, Black participants showed a slightly larger bias than White participants did.
This racial bias in judgments of people’s social pain is problematic because it may lead people to expect that Black individuals need less social support to cope with their hurt than White individuals. After all, we’re not likely to help other people if we don’t think they’re seriously hurt. In line with this reasoning, we found a similar racial bias when we asked participants to judge how much social support people needed to manage their distress. Assuming that Black people were less sensitive to pain than White people led participants to believe that Black individuals would require less social support to manage their hurt than White individuals.
We don’t yet know how these racial biases shape responses when people actually see individuals experience painful events rather than merely reading about them, as they did in our study. But evidence from other research teams suggests that people have a harder time perceiving pain in the faces of Black people than White people. These racial biases in judgments of social pain and coping may lower the support people offer to Black compared to White individuals even when they see painful events occur in everyday life. If so, these results document a racial bias that may have implications for the support and care that people offer to Black and White individuals.
For Further Reading
Deska, J. C., Kunstman, J., Lloyd, E. P., Almaraz, S. M., Bernstein, M. J., Gonzales, J. P., & Hugenberg, K. (2020). Race-based biases in judgments of social pain. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 88, Article 103964
Hoffman, K. M., & Trawalter, S. (2016). Assumptions about life hardship and pain perception. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 19(4), 493-508.
Mende-Siedlecki, P., Qu-Lee, J., Backer, R., & Van Bavel, J. J. (2019). Perceptual contributions to racial bias in pain recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(5), 863-889.
Jonathan W. Kunstman is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Miami University. He studies the role of psychological processes in interracial dynamics and the psychological experience of power.
Jason C. Deska is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Ryerson University. He studies how the impressions people form of others produce and sustain inequality.