Imagine that you see an Arab looking man sitting on a bench in the park. You think you see a tear rolling down his cheek. He stares ahead with a blank expression and does not even see you. What would you think? And what would you do? And would it matter whether you are of Arab descent yourself, or of some other ethnicity?

Recent research suggests that we feel less empathy towards people of different ethnicities when they express emotions. This empathy gap is a disheartening phenomenon, as it shows that we feel less pity or concern towards members of other groups and are thus less likely to help them.

But why do we feel less empathy for people in other groups? Is it simply because we know them less well, or do we see other things in their faces? Our research explored this question. We started with the idea that, in order to feel empathy, people have to be able to recognize that someone is feeling a strong emotion.  We expected that facial expressions of emotions in people of a different ethnic group than our own are seen as weaker, compared to the same facial expressions of members of our own group. Therefore, interpreting a face as reflecting less intense emotions will evoke less empathy than when the signals are perceived as strong. In other words, European Americans would see the Arab man in our example as less sad than when they see a White man with the same sad expression.  This could be an explanation of the empathy gap.

We conducted 12 studies in total, including 3201 participants, all of whom were white European or European-American. We showed participants pictures of individuals from two different ethnic groups: Arabic and Western (see the example), who displayed emotions of different intensities on their face. After viewing each photo, we asked participants to rate how intense the person experienced a number of different emotions.

photo of man grimacing

Our participants rated the intensity of emotions displayed by people of a different ethnic group lower than the emotions displayed by members of their own group, which we call the “intensity bias.”  For example, our White participants rated the same sad expression as less sad on an Arab face than a White face. Thus, people use ethnic group membership to interpret the intensity of someone’s feelings.

This intensity bias does not always occur. When other information is available, the intensity bias is less likely. For example, if we know that someone just lost his partner, we will interpret any facial expression of sadness as a reflection of extreme sadness, because we assume that people must feel that way after such a traumatic event. But if we see just someone’s face, without knowing what happened to him or her—whether at work, in a shop, on the street, or on television—this bias can easily influence our interpretation of the other’s feelings.

Thinking that other people’s emotions are less intense may reflect a systematic downplaying of emotions of ethnic outgroup members, lead us to feel less empathy and to ignore the feelings of people who are different from us. Our work is a first step towards understanding why we are less likely to feel empathy and help someone of another ethnic group: If we can’t recognize that they are in need, we cannot help.

For Further Reading:

Kommattam, P., Jonas, K. J., & Fischer, A. H. (2019). Perceived to feel less. Intensity bias in interethnic emotion perception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 84. Preprint available at PsyArXiv.

Kommattam, P., Jonas, K. J., & Fischer, A. H. (2017). We are sorry, they don’t care: Misinterpretation of facial embarrassment displays in Arab–White intergroup contexts. Emotion17(4), 658.

Elfenbein, H. A., & Ambady, N. (2003). When familiarity breeds accuracy: Cultural exposure and facial emotion recognition. Journal of personality and social psychology85(2), 276.

Gutsell, J. N., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Intergroup differences in the sharing of emotive states: neural evidence of an empathy gap. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience7(5), 596-603.

Agneta Fischer is professor in Emotions and Affective Processes in the department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam and dean of the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences. She investigates how social factors influence what we feel, how we express and regulate our emotions, and how we respond to others’ emotions.

Pum Kommattam researches intergroup empathy, intersectionality and trans health care. He also works as a psychological counselor and is in training to become a psychotherapist at the Centre for Psychotherapy of the Humboldt University Berlin (ZPHU).

Kai J. Jonas is an associate professor at the Work and Social psychology program, Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, at Maastricht University, and at the Jockey Club School of Public Health and Primary Care at Chinese University Hong Kong. His research focusses on determinants, processes and outcomes of discrimination, and on sexual health.