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Race and Empathy Matter on Neural Level

Rare neuroscience look at how strong identification with racial group affects empathy

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April 26, 2010 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

EVANSTON, Ill. --Race matters on a neurological level when it comes to empathy for African- Americans in distress, according to a new Northwestern University study.

In a rare neuroscience look at racial minorities, the study shows that African-Americans showed greater empathy for African-Americans facing adversity - in this case for victims of Hurricane Katrina - than Caucasians demonstrated for Caucasian-Americans in pain.

“We found that everybody reported empathy and showed increased neural response within brain regions associated with empathy toward the Hurricane Katrina victims,” said Joan Y. Chiao, assistant professor of psychology and author of the study. “But African-Americans additionally showed greater empathic response to other African-Americans in emotional pain. And this enhanced or extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation for ingroup members was associated with increased neural activity within a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex.”

The more African-Americans identified as African-American the more likely they were to show greater empathic preference for African-Americans, the study showed.

Initially, Chiao thought that both African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans would either show no pattern of in-group bias or both show some sort of preference.

The take-home point to Chiao: our ability to identify with another person dramatically changes how much we can feel the pain of another and how much we're willing to help them.

"It's just that feeling of that person is like me, or that person is similar to me," she said. "That experience can really lead to what we're calling ‘extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation. It's empathy and altruistic motivation above and beyond what you would do for another human.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the study included an equal number of African-American and Caucasian-American study participants. They were shown pictures depicting either African-American or Caucasian-American individuals in a painful (i.e. in the midst of a natural disaster) or neutral (attending an outdoor picnic).

"We think this is really interesting because it suggests mechanisms by which we can enhance our empathy and altruistic motivation simply by finding ways in which we have commonality across individuals and across groups," Chiao said.

Chiao, who works at one of only two labs in the world dedicated to cultural and social neuroscience, is particularly interested in how social identities related to gender or race modulate the biological process underlying feeling and reason. (The Web address for the Social and Cultural Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern is http://culturalneuro.psych.northwestern.edu/Lab_Website/Welcome.html).

"Neural Basis of Extraordinary Empathy and Altruistic Motivation," was published in March in the journal NeuroImage and is available online at http://www.sciencedirect.com. The study's co-investigators are Chiao, Vani A. Mathur, Tokiko Harada and Trixie Lipke, of Northwestern's Department of Psychology.

Topics: Research