On Skin Color and Pain Empathy

Mann, D. (2010). “Skin Color Affects Ability to Empathize with Pain.” CNN.com. Retrieved on 23 June 2010: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/05/27/race.empathy/index.html?hpt=C2

An article written by Denise Mann, Skin color affects ability to empathize with pain”, raises some controversial questions around race. According to Mann’s article Neuroscience research has demonstrated that humans are hardwired to feel another person’s pain. For example when someone stumps their toe or fall, people reacts in ways as if they felt the other person’s pain. A study conducted in Italy argues that people feel less empathy for some that has different skin tone. Researchers have found that one reaction to another person’s pain can be racially subjective. Can race really play a role in pain empathy?

The study monitored people’s nervous  systems activity by tracking heart rates and sweat gland activity when they were watching clips of white and black hands being pricked by needles. The finding was that observers reacted more to the pain of someone with the same skin tone. The experiment was also used on a purple hand in which participants empathize with more than they did with a hand from another race. The author takes these claims and applies it to how medical practitioners may empathize with their patient’s pain and consequently how they treat them based on their race. Racial prejudice has always existed, however to make a generalization like that and connect it to “scientific” facts, is a weak claim.

I would argue that empathy with pain can also be socially constructed. For instance consider a white woman who is married to a black man and has mixed children. The social relationship she has with her family would probably determine the level of empathy she has towards the pain of the opposite race. Biological race cannot be the underlying determinate of pain empathy. The ways in which people are socialized and their racial perceptions of the world can potentially influence how they react to another person’s pain.  The study does not look at people’s relations to other races and their experiences with other races. I agree that one can empathize more with specific people’s pain, but this may not be merely racially driven, it can also be an outcome of people’s personal experiences to another demographic of people. The problem is that bringing race at the forefront of these studies just reinforces more racial prejudices. Many argue that they empathize the same way when they observe people who are in pain regardless of their race. Furthermore, I think studies like this cannot be linked to the medical field, as people should base the ways in which their doctors treat them on their professionalism and   experience.

Interface Design: This article was difficult to connect to interface design, but I will give it a try. It terms of product design and the use of cognitive science, one can argue that although people are wired to react in specific ways neurologically, cultural implications and personal experiences can have a significant impact how people interact with things. Yes, people react to pain in specific ways, but who they react towards and the level of reaction is an individualized experience.

It is also important to note that the reactions people have towards the pain of another person are visual experiences. What if we are to take this visual experience and the stimuli and apply to packaging, product design and branding. In Martin Lindstrom’s book Buyology the Truth and Lies about What We Buy, he looks at neuro-marketing and the importance of mirror neurons when it comes to marketing. This is when the brain mentally imitates an action that is being observed. The visual stimuli in products and spaces can create desirable reactions (interaction) from consumer, some that are neurologically induced and others that are culturally influenced.

  1 comment for “On Skin Color and Pain Empathy

  1. June 29, 2010 at 5:31 am

    I found it interesting that in the study the color of the hand that was inflicted with pain was purple. While most studies strive for political correctness, this study was specifically focusing in racial bias in empathy. It would have been more productive to test “real” human skin differences. That a subject might not feel as much for a purple hand doesn’t seem to say much about racially-based feelings of sympathy or empathy. Personally, I might not react empathetically to a clown face, but does this make me a racist?

Comments are closed.