Psychology Colloquium: Perceptual Contributions to Racial Bias in Pain Recognition and Treatment


Peter Mende-Siedlecki, PhD
Assistant Professor, University of Delaware
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences


Perceptual Contributions to Racial Bias in Pain Recognition and Treatment


The physical pain of Black Americans is systematically under-diagnosed and under-treated, compared to the pain of Whites. While other work has examined social-cognitive factors driving such biases (e.g., explicit stereotypes about and prejudice towards Black Americans), we tested whether racial bias in pain care stems from a perceptual source, as well. Across a series of experiments using a novel stimulus set, White participants consistently showed more stringent thresholds for recognizing pain on Black faces, versus White faces. This bias was indeed perceptual in nature — arising from disruptions in configural face processing — and could not be explained by differences in low-level stimulus features (e.g., luminance, contrast), or subjective evaluations related to pain (e.g., masculinity, dominance). We even observed biased pain perception when facial structure and expression intensity were objectively equated across digitally-rendered Black and White targets. Moreover, we examined how bottom-up and top-down influences shape biases in pain perception and treatment. We observed that darker skin tones yielded more stringent thresholds for perceiving pain independent of race, and further, that Afrocentric structural features exacerbated racial bias in pain perception. Further, both gender and status interacted with race to shape pain perception: the most lenient thresholds for pain perception were observed for White male and high status White targets, respectively. Critically, across all experiments, we repeatedly observed that bias in perception predicted subsequent bias in treatment, over and above explicit prejudice and stereotypes. These data illuminate the perceptual underpinnings of disparities in pain care and can inform new interventions to bridge those gaps.

Faculty Host

Adam Green

Friday, October 5, 2018 at 12:00pm to 1:00pm

White-Gravenor Hall, 201A
37th and O St., N.W., Washington

Event Type



Students, Faculty/Staff


Georgetown College, Psychology


Event Contact Name

Psychology Department

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