Reducing racial disparities in pain treatment: the role of empathy and perspective-taking

Pain. 2011 May;152(5):1001-1006. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2010.12.005. Epub 2011 Jan 28.


Epidemiological evidence indicates that African Americans receive lower quality pain treatment than European Americans. However, the factors causing these disparities remain unidentified, and solutions to this problem remain elusive. Across three laboratory experiments, we examined the hypotheses that empathy is not only causing pain treatment disparities but that empathy-inducing interventions can reduce these disparities. Undergraduates (Experiments 1 and 2) and nursing professionals (Experiment 3) watched videos of real Black and White patients' genuine facial expressions of pain, provided pain treatment decisions, and reported their feelings of empathy for each patient. The efficacy of an empathy-inducing, perspective-taking intervention at reducing pain treatment disparities was also examined (Experiments 2 and 3). When instructed to attempt to provide patients with the best care, participants exhibited significant pro-White pain treatment biases. However, participants engaged in an empathy-inducing, perspective-taking intervention that instructed them to imagine how patients' pain affected patients' lives exhibited upwards of a 55% reduction in pain treatment bias in comparison to controls. Furthermore, Pro-White empathy biases were highly predictive of pro-White pain treatment biases. The magnitude of the empathy bias experienced predicted the magnitude of the treatment bias exhibited. These findings suggest that empathy plays a crucial role in racial pain treatment disparities in that it appears not only to be one likely cause of pain treatment disparities but also is an important means for reducing racial disparities in pain treatment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • African Americans / statistics & numerical data
  • Aged
  • Continental Population Groups / psychology*
  • Empathy*
  • European Continental Ancestry Group / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Health Services Accessibility / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain / epidemiology
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Pain Management*
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Young Adult