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.

RTRL.45: The Power of Teacher Empathy (Okonofua, Paunesku, & Walton, 2016)


Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention cuts suspension rates in half. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(19), 5221-5226.

What did the researchers want to know?

Does an empathic mindset related to student misbehavior result in more positive outcomes than a punitive mindset?

What did the researchers do?

Okonofua, Paunesku, and Walton conducted three experiments. In Experiment 1, they randomly assigned 39 teachers to either an empathic- or punitive-mindset condition. Each teacher was asked to read a short article in which they were reminded either “that ‘good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control’ (empathic mindset) or that ‘punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom’ (punitive mindset)” (p. 5221). Then they read three minor misbehavior records, described how they would discipline each student, and rated the extent to which they considered each student a “troublemaker.”

In Experiment 2, the researchers asked 302 college students to “imagine themselves as middle-school students who had disrupted class by repeatedly walking around to throw away trash” (p. 5222). Each student then read a description for how their imaginary teacher (“Mrs. Smith”) responded—either by giving them detention and sending them to the principal (punitive) or by asking them about their behavior and moving the trashcan closer to their desk (empathic). After this, the students rated how much respect they would have for Mrs. Smith and their motivation to behave well in the future.

Experiment 3 was a longitudinal study in which the researchers “tested whether encouraging an empathic mindset about discipline would reduce student suspension rates over an academic year” (p. 5222). Thirty-one teachers at five diverse middle schools in California participated in this study. These teachers participated in two online modules, the purpose of which they were told was “to review common but sometimes neglected wisdom about teaching and to collect their perspectives as experienced teachers on how to best handle difficult interactions with students” (p. 5223). After consenting to participate, each teacher was randomly assigned to either the empathic mindset condition or the control condition. Modules in the control condition focused on using technology to promote learning. For the empathic-condition, the first module focused on “non-pejorative reasons why students sometimes misbehave in class and how positive relationships with teachers can facilitate students’ growth” (p. 5223). The materials encouraged teachers to “understand and value students’ experiences and negative feelings that can cause misbehavior” and reminded them that “a teacher who makes … students feel hear, valued, and respected shows them that school is fair and they can grow and succeed there” (p. 5223). This included stories from students and opportunities for teachers to reflect on how they could incorporate the ideas into their teaching. Two months later, teachers completed the second module, which in the empathic condition focused on reminding them that “students’ feelings about and behavior in school can and do improve when teachers successfully convey the care and respect students crave” (p. 5223). At this time, students were also asked to complete a survey assessing the school climate, specifically focusing on perceived respect from teachers and other school adults. At the end of the school year, the researchers collected students’ suspension rates from each school.

What did the researchers find?

The results of Experiment 1 showed the teachers with an empathic mindset chose to punish students less severely and were less likely to label students as troublemakers than the teachers with a punitive mindset. 

In Experiment 2, students whose teacher responded with empathy reported having greater respect for the teacher and being more motivated to behave well in the future than students whose teacher responded punitively. Furthermore, the greater the respect the student reported having for the teacher, the more motivated they were to behave well in the future.

Experiment 3 results showed that students whose teachers received the empathic-mindset intervention were half as likely to be suspended as students of the control teachers, even when statistically controlled for race, gender, and prior-year suspensions. In addition, students with a history of prior suspension whose teachers received the empathic-mindset condition reported feeling more respected by their teachers than did those who were students of the control teachers.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Students whose teachers take a punitive approach to discipline may feel less respected and less inclined to behave well in class. However, students will likely feel more cared for and respected if we try to have empathy for them, to understand the reasons behind their misbehavior, and to assume positive (or at least neutral) intentions. Doing so can help build a positive, caring relationship with the student, which may lead them to want to do better in the future.

Some ideas from teachers who participated in this study include the following:

“When asked how they ‘would like … to improve your relationships with your students?’ teachers powerfully echoed the intervention themes: For example,

  • ‘[I] greet every student at the door with a smile every day no matter what has occurred the day before’;
  • ‘[I] answer their questions thoughtfully and respectfully no matter what their academic history with me has been’; and
  • ‘I NEVER hold grudges. I try to remember that they are all the son or daughter of someone who loves them more than anything in the world. They are the light of someone’s life!’” (p. 5223)

Further Reading:

This research was featured in the New York Times.

This article provides further insight into teaching with empathy.

This article has ideas for helping students learn empathy.

Dr. Okonofua also co-authored this research study on race and perceptions of student misbehavior.