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Racial Bias in Perception of Others’ Pain Appears In Children

Racial Bias in Perception of Others' Pain Appears In ChildrenIn a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia, a sample of elementary school children (mostly white) reported that black children feel less pain than white children.

The study, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, builds on previous findings of the racial bias in adults regarding their perceptions of others’ pain.

“Our research shows that a potentially very harmful bias in adults emerges during middle childhood, and appears to develop across childhood,” said the study’s lead investigator, Rebecca Dore, a Ph.D. candidate in developmental psychology at the university.

“Talking to children about racial issues early may be important for preventing the development of biases that could have consequences in adulthood,” she said.

For the study, researchers asked children (at ages five, seven, and 10) to rate how much pain another child of the same gender would feel during a variety of pain-inducing situations, such as bumping their head, or slamming a hand in the door. While viewing pictures of black children, the seven- and 10-year-olds tended to rate the pain as being less severe than when they were shown pictures of white children.

The racial bias in their perceptions of others’ pain seemed to grow from early to late childhood. The researchers found no evidence of racial bias in five year olds, but the bias started to show up among participants around the age of seven, and then became the strongest at age 10.

The research followed a similar study involving adults, which showed that both white and black adults tend to believe that black people feel less pain than white people. The researchers suggest that the current racial bias in health care, particularly in pain management, may be partly due to these perceptions.

The new study does not answer why children are exhibiting this bias; however, earlier research shows that one reason adults perceive black people as feeling less pain is because they assume black people have endured greater hardship in their lives. The researchers currently are investigating whether these perceptions could play a factor in the childhood bias.

“Since participants in the study were mostly white, the study cannot answer whether similar biases occur among black children. Future studies may investigate that question,” Dore said.

Dore noted that adults often feel uncomfortable talking about racial issues with young children, but since bias is evident at young ages, they should begin discussing it early.

“Our finding can’t speak to how parents or teachers, for example, might intervene and try to halt these biases at an early age, but we currently are running a study that might speak to that question,” Dore said. “However, what this study can inform is the timing of any interventions. If we want to prevent this bias from developing, it needs to be done by age seven, or age 10 at the latest.”

Source:  University of Virginia

Child getting a band aid put on her arm photo by shutterstock.

Racial Bias in Perception of Others’ Pain Appears In Children

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Racial Bias in Perception of Others’ Pain Appears In Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 1 Mar 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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