RTRL.54: Can Empathy Reduce Implicit Bias? (Whitford & Emerson, 2019)


Whitford, D. K., Emerson, A. M. (2019). Empathy intervention to reduce implicit bias in pre-service teachers. Psychological Reports, 122(2), 670-688.

What did the researchers want to know?

Can a brief intervention designed to solicit empathy for Black individuals reduce implicit bias among white preservice teachers?

What did the researchers do?

Whitford and Emerson randomly assigned 34 white preservice teachers to two groups, both of which completed the Race Implicit Association Test as a measure of their implicit bias at the beginning of the study. Next, each group was asked to read either the experimental or control group passage, type their thoughts and feelings for 10 minutes after reading, and then complete the Implicit Association Test again. Participants in the control group read an article about integrating technology into elementary science lessons and were asked to write about how this made them feel, what they liked about it, and how they might improve the lessons. Participants in the experimental group read descriptions of 10 personal experiences of explicit racism from Black student peers, and they were asked to imagine themselves in the Black students’ situations and write about how this made them feel, how they would have reacted, and how these experiences might be prevented.

What did the researchers find?

Although the two groups did not differ on their Implicit Association Test scores before the intervention, there was a statistically significant difference between the groups’ post-intervention scores. Possible scores range from -2.0 to 2.0, with scores closer to zero indicating  less bias. While the control group mean only went from 0.53 to 0.47, the experimental group mean went from 0.57 to 0.18, indicating significantly less implicit bias after the intervention. 

What does this mean for my classroom?

Whitford and Emerson’s results suggest experiences soliciting empathy can be effective in reducing negative bias toward Black individuals. Specifically, White teachers who consider and empathize with Black students’ experiences with explicit racism may show less bias toward Black students, thereby reducing discriminatory discipline. Okonofua and Eberhardt found in this study that teachers responded more harshly to behavior infractions committed by students with Black-sounding names than with White-sounding names. However, according to Whitford and Emerson, “our results indicate that teacher training aimed at racial consciousness, and personal awareness of implicit bias holds promise for promoting empathy within the education workforce” (p. 680). Similarly, Okonofua, Paunesku, and Walton found in this study that teachers who take an empathic mindset punish students less severely and that their students have greater respect for them and are more motivated to behave well in the future. As Whitford and Emerson state, “School discipline inequality is one of the major contributors to the prison pipe-line for at-risk children and adolescents, but it does not have to be” (p. 682). Empathy interventions can be one effective strategy for turning the tide.

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