Empathy Gaps for Social Pain: Why People Underestimate the Pain of Social Suffering

Loran F. Nordgren*, Kasia Banas, Geoff MacDonald

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


In 5 studies, the authors examined the hypothesis that people have systematically distorted beliefs about the pain of social suffering. By integrating research on empathy gaps for physical pain (Loewenstein, 1996) with social pain theory (MacDonald & Leary, 2005), the authors generated the hypothesis that people generally underestimate the severity of social pain (ostracism, shame, etc.)-a biased judgment that is only corrected when people actively experience social pain for themselves. Using a social exclusion manipulation, Studies 1-4 found that nonexcluded participants consistently underestimated the severity of social pain compared with excluded participants, who had a heightened appreciation for social pain. This empathy gap for social pain occurred when participants evaluated both the pain of others (interpersonal empathy gap) as well as the pain participants themselves experienced in the past (intrapersonal empathy gap). The authors argue that beliefs about social pain are important because they govern how people react to socially distressing events. In Study 5, middle school teachers were asked to evaluate policies regarding emotional bullying at school. This revealed that actively experiencing social pain heightened the estimated pain of emotional bullying, which in turn led teachers to recommend both more comprehensive treatment for bullied students and greater punishment for students who bully.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)120-128
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2011


  • Empathy gaps
  • Social exclusion
  • Social pain

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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