Home > Attention > Pleasure from your pain: how the empathy bias makes us kinda shitty people

Pleasure from your pain: how the empathy bias makes us kinda shitty people

Notice the girl wearing a white sweater in the background smiling as she walks by? Her reaction could be a perfect example of the empathy bias. (https://giphy.com/search/mean-girls

Remember in high school when there was that clique (or whatever the boy-version of a clique would be called) that you absolutely loved to hate and got a sense of personal pleasure when something went wrong for a member of the group? For example, when the fourteen-year-old you watched that annoyingly pretty girl drop her lunch in the cafeteria all over her side-kick best friend, you laughed and felt a swell of happiness. I might not be able to claim that you’re not still a slightly shitty person for feeling that way, but cognitive psychology research may have some reasoning behind those feelings and it’s called the empathy bias.

My first thought when reading “empathy bias” is that I’m a super empathetic person so this must not affect me, right? Wrong. The empathy bias sets up an “us” versus “them” system when it comes to basically every form of identity including (but not limited to): race, gender, sexuality, age, religious views, class, social status, and interests. Empathy is the ability to see emotion in others (sadness, pain, or suffering for example), and feel similar emotions for them. Empathy is the emotional basis of most social functioning and I was shocked to learn that it develops in infancy! Although it is considered extremely socially significant to have some capacity of empathy, it is not a universal response. For example, when more than 46,000 people lost their life as a result of the Haitian earthquake in 2010, many of those not impacted had a difficult time feeling empathetic. This is likely because those affected would be considered too “different” in terms of race, class, religious views, and or nationality for someone watching a video on Facebook to feel empathy for them.

What is an ingroup and what is an outgroup and why does it matter? The idea of “us” versus “them” was explored in a study by Cikara et al. in which social identity and groupings were used to explain how one can experience lack of empathy for outgroup members and maybe even pleasure in outgroup pain. Someone’s ingroup would be those whom they share the most similarities with (race, gender, age, interests, religious affiliation etc). Someone’s outgroup would be those whom they share the least similarities with. 320 participants were placed on a team and then read scenarios about members of their team (ingroup) and members not on their team (outgroup). Most of the scenarios would be intended to cause empathy, for example, “Participant X got into a car accident on his way to the research center today”. Researchers concluded that when explicitly placed in teams, participants were more likely to show a lack of empathy (or even antipathy, which is feelings of dislike) towards opposing group members than they were to show strong empathy towards members of their own team. This possibly shows that people are more likely to see the teams as a reason to act competitively towards members of the opposing team rather than empathetically towards members of their own team. They also concluded that it doesn’t matter the standing of your team in comparison to the opposing team when it comes to reduction of antipathy.

If the blue team were winning by 20 points at this point in the game, research suggests members of the blue team wouldn’t feel any less antipathy towards this kid being pelted with the ball. (https://giphy.com/search/kids-soccer)

Finally, researchers suggest that the only way to reduce the intergroup empathy bias is to blur the lines between “us” and “them”. Unfortunately, in real-world application, sometimes blurring the lines of groupings is very difficult, for example class or race discriminations. I believe that blurring these lines should be our greatest focus in order to better the workings of society as a whole and reduce the prevalence of empathy biases.


So how could this bias potentially be life threatening? Drwecki et al. completed a study that analyzed the treatment of pain in the medical field and how the empathy bias could be harmful. Medical school students and nursing professionals (the participants) were shown real videos of facial expressions of African American patients and white patients after experiencing trauma. They were then asked to provide pain treatment decisions and report their feelings of empathy for each patient. Researchers found that if the participant was white, they scaled their feelings of empathy significantly higher for the white patients (and vise versa for African American participants towards African American patients). This finding suggests that ingroup versus outgroups feelings of race are applicable to everyday scenarios. Also, if the participants felt more empathy towards one group of patients, they were more likely to prescribe more appropriate pain treatment for those patients. In conclusion, researchers suggest that the only way to improve racial disparities in pain treatment is to address empathy biases amongst race in medicine. As someone who is interested to perusing a career in medicine, simply being aware of the problems this bias can cause opens my eyes to how cognitive biases can be influential in life-or-death situations.

If empathy bias is at play in this photo, this doctor may not be treating this little girl appropriately for pain due to their differences in race.(https://saboteur365.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/white-doc-helps-black-africa.jpg)



What about some neuropsychological evidence you ask? As someone who is extremely interested in neuroscience, analyzing brain data can be helpful in better understanding why cognitive biases happen. A study by Mathur et al. used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology to examine the neural basis of empathy and antipathy in African-Americans and white Americans. Researchers found that when observing the suffering of people of a different race (outgroup), brain activity response is within the anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral insula. When presented images of the suffering of one’s same race (ingroup), brain activity response is additionally in the medial prefrontal cortex. Basically, this means that different parts of the brain respond to ingroup or outgroup empathy. Therefore, if the brain reacts differently to different stimuli in order to produce empathy, how in the world are we supposed to counteract the problems this bias can cause?


Illustration of weapons-priming procedure. After shown the face and the object, subjects are asked to respond whether the object was a weapon or a tool as quickly as possible. (goo.gl/za352S)

If assessing ingroup versus outgroup is so important to the empathy bias, how are we to decide so quickly who is our ingroup and who is our outgroup? In reflection of cognitive processes, facial recognition and attention are extremely important to determining these groupings. For example, this would relate to the weapon bias affect which is when participants were more likely to assume the object (tool or weapon) was a weapon when primed with an African American face versus when primed with a white face. This is similar to the empathy bias because in order to judge whether you feel empathetic or antipathetic towards someone we first must assess whether they are on our ingroup or outgroup (specifically in terms of race in this case). Cognitively we are quick to assess similarities and differences about someone simply through facial recognition, as seen in the weapons bias. Therefore, we can potentially be affect by empathy bias as quickly as we recognize a face from across the room.


So next time you feel a strong sense of empathy (or maybe antipathy if that’s more your thing), ask yourself whether the person it is direct towards would be your “ingroup” or your “outgroup”. Although the empathy bias is socially common and often times unintentional an unnoticed, if people were able to feel more empathetic towards people of their outgroup, this world might be a far more peaceful place for all of us.



Cikara, M., Bruneau, E., Van Bavel, J. J., & Saxe, R. (2014). Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 55110-125. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2014.06.007

Drwecki, B. B., Moore, C. F., Ward, S. E., & Prkachin, K. M. (2011). Reducing racial disparities in pain treatment: The role of empathy and perspective-taking. Pain, 152(5), 1001-1006. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2010.12.005

Mathur, V. A., Harada, T., Lipke, T., & Chiao, J. Y. (2010). Neural basis of extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation. NeuroImage, 51(4), 1468-1475. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.03.025


  1. asweiss
    April 17th, 2017 at 22:33 | #1

    Interesting post, Kallie! It seems as if competition could play an important role in the strength of the empathy bias, perhaps because competition has been demonstrated to enhance the salience of one’s in-group, and therefore influence an in-group’s relationship to all other out-groups (Brewer, 1979). As salience increases, this could increase intergroup hostility, which could ultimately make a group more likely to empathize with itself or those that are similar to them, and antagonize groups that are different or distant from the in-group. I found that the study by Drwecki et al. in which you wrote about was very shocking and distressing. The influence of race in medicine and medical practices is truly sickening to witness, and it reminds me of the weapon bias study performed by Payne in 2006 (an unfortunately relevant last name for the study you discussed) in the sense that race is the basis for many compelling cognitive biases, many of which are the product of socialization. I feel that the role of the contact theory in social psychology is important to note here, as there is interesting evidence regarding racial stereotypes, where people may exercise more empathy towards members of their own race or races they commonly come in contact with. This contact could play a role in the strength of the empathy bias in various circumstances.

    For reference to Brewer’s research, the citation is as follows:

    Brewer, M. B. (1979). In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis. Psychological bulletin, 86, 2, 307-324.

  2. April 25th, 2017 at 17:26 | #2

    Really interesting post! I’ve read about us versus them phenomena, but I had never considered real world consequences aside from on a soccer field or in a high school cafeteria. Your example from Drwecki et al. really caught my attention and explicated how the empathy bias can have significant real world repercussions. It also got me thinking about how some us versus them scenarios are not just defined by belonging to another team or clique of girls, but another group that is actually defined through pattern recognition. The own-race and own-age biases show that exposure to certain groups can create significantly better ability to recognize people from those groups, so a way to reduce the empathy bias may actually be found in increasing socialization with other groups.

  3. seseid20
    April 29th, 2017 at 21:19 | #3

    Yikes. This is really concerning. I’m really glad you chose this bias and unpacked some info for us because I think this problem definitely needs to be talked about. As I was reading your post and the Drwecki et al., I found myself thinking about how other cognitive factors can come into play in this bias. For example, I learned a lot about this subject in the social psych segment of intro, but I wonder how things like pattern recognition/memory/attention can affect this bias. I guess I’m thinking about how the contact theory works cognitively. That is, each time you are exposed to someone different from yourself you are able to form a new memory and associate new traits with that person. As a result, your mental representation would become more complex and you wouldn’t be as likely to put so many people in your out-group? However, it seems like it would be hard to completely eliminate the out-group… I think the more we know about the subject the more we can consciously attend to our actions and hopefully work on this.

  4. May 2nd, 2017 at 23:57 | #4

    Very interesting stuff! While reading your post, I started thinking about whether or not animals show this bias. Obviously we cannot ask them to report their level of empathy, but maybe the bias is shown through other innate, non-verbal social behaviors. Several animal models–from monkeys to ants–show in-group favoritism (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4371377/). For example, red fire ants that have different odors will try to kill each other. What I am getting at here is that maybe there is more to the issue than the social/demographic classification of in- and out-group. Unlike these ants, as humans we have the ability to communicate verbally and (in most cases) not experience all-out war with our out-group. Relating to Maddie’s comment above and to the Harrison & Hole (2009) paper, maybe we can use the same things that cause own-age and own-race bias in a positive way. For example, if we want to increase empathy for someone or a group of people, we need to have greater exposure to them and increase our perceptual processing. Furthermore, maybe we find more ways to relate to our so-called out-groups by finding more shared/common features. Just some thoughts as to how we can all be better people!

  5. jdrose20
    May 4th, 2017 at 16:13 | #5

    This post seems to be extremely relevant, especially in situations where there is competition (perhaps for resources or land, as in Israel). I am wondering if attention has anything to do with this bias. What if participants in the study were specifically asked to pay close attention to the behaviors and facial expressions that out group participants make? I am thinking that perhaps people do not pay attention to the important factors that clue us into other people’s emotions when those people are in our out group. Perhaps if we can train ourselves to pay attention to other’s emotional responses, instead of simply paying attention to how we feel about their emotions, we will be able to empathize better. I am also wondering if you could relate this to the own age/ own race bias that suggests that people have an easier time recognizing the races of people who are of a the same race/age that they are. Do you think the aspects of pattern recognition that play a role in these biases may also play a role in the empathy bias? I can imagine that top down processes may also influence this bias, as our expectations for other people and the stereotypes we have about out group people may affect how we empathize with them. Very interesting bias!

  6. ackelso
    May 7th, 2017 at 20:16 | #6

    Great post, Kallie! I was especially intrigued by the study conducted by Drwecki et al. because it is something so prevalent in society today and we don’t even realize it. Your post had me thinking about the Harrison & Hole (2009) article we read in class about own-age and own-race bias. If you recall, the own-age bias is when people have an easier time recognizing faces of people who are in a similar age group with them versus faces of people who are not in a similar age group with them. Just like empathy bias, the own-age/own-race bias can affect our daily interactions without us even noticing. Further research should focus on how attention and social categorization play a role into both the own-age and empathy bias. From there, we can make steps in the right direction to improve these everyday problems caused by these biases.

    Reference to Harrison & Hole (2009) article:
    Harrison, V., & Hole, G. J. (2009). Evidence for a contact-based explanation of the own-age bias in face recognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16(2), 264-269. doi:10.3758/PBR.16.2.264

  7. May 11th, 2017 at 16:15 | #7

    Thank you for your comment. I could not agree more! In reflection of my original blog, I have realized how important attention and social categorization are on an everyday basis. I personally never take the time to think about how I socially categorize myself and others everyday, but after thinking through cognitive biases like the empathy bias and the own-age and own-race biases that you discussed I realize how influenced I am everyday. I think you’re right that we need better and more extended research in order to bring these issues to the public and help people to better understand how they are affected and how improvement in these biases (especially in terms of gender, race, and class) could better our social world.

  8. May 11th, 2017 at 16:32 | #8

    Thank you for your comment! I understand what you’re saying in terms of how competition can lead to empathy bias as I discussed in my blog. I find it upsetting that disputes, like the one over land and resources in Isreal, are often settled in favor of the superior or most threatening group. Your comment about attention and whether paying attention to behaviors and expressions of one’s outgroup would affect empathy bias was also interesting. I agree that this would likely sway the results if participants were asked to pay attention to outgroup members, but this type of instruction would cause the results to not be about empathy bias anymore. By instructing participants to assess who they consider to be in their ingroup and who is their outgroup, we are forcing them to maybe reconsider their discriminations against the groupings and eliminate the bias all together. Although this would be great, this is not how people behave in normal interactions in our society and unfortunately this is why empathy bias exists. I do very much agree that if we were able to assess people’s emotions based on how they feel versus how their emotions make us feel we may be able to be far more empathetic. Although, I would hope in regards to my point about medical care, a doctor would never assess one’s pain based on how their suffering affects him or her. It is normally the responsibility of a doctor to be selfless and treat patients in order for them to get better rather than for personal gain.

  9. May 11th, 2017 at 16:40 | #9

    @Scott Fenwick
    Thank you for your comment Scott! I honestly never considered whether animals could also show many of the cognitive biases that we’ve discussed, but I am not surprised to hear the evidence you provided. I feel as though ingroup and outgroup classifications are common amongst many species simply because competition is so important to survival. If we didn’t have a group to identify with, would we be able to find our place amongst the society we exist within? I seem to be integrating a lot of anthropological ideas here, but your comment has allowed me to consider why ingroup and outgroups are so important to the way we define ourselves in our world. In analyzing animals, I realize our classifications and identities are much greater than ourselves but rather encompass a lot about culture, capitalism, etc. Cognitive biases are truly much bigger than the individual and I think they often shine light on much bigger problems that exist within our world.

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