Empathy and Racial Identity

Does how much empathy we feel for other people depend on their race?
A team of Canadian researchers recently decided to look at how our brains respond to racial differences and found that white men show less activity in the motor-cortex area of their brains when they watch men of other races (blacks, South Asians, and East Asians) sip a glass of water than when they watch white men do the same.
Typically, certain cells in the brain, called “mirror neurons,” are activated not only when we perform a certain action, but also when we watch another person perform that same action. Researchers believe that this ability to mentally mimic the actions of others is how we understand their intentions and emotions—and ultimately empathize with them. But it appears we’re less likely to mimic the actions of someone of another race than someone who shares our racial background. In some cases, when the white men watched nonwhite men perform the drinking action, they showed as little activity in their motor cortex as when they watched a blank screen.
Michael Inzlicht, a psychologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough who worked on the study, says he doesn’t expect the results to be different with men of other races since past studies that looked at people’s brains while they watched another person express an emotion found:

When that someone else belonged to a different group, they didn’t simulate those emotions and that was true if you were white and you were observing someone black or if you were South Asian and you were observing someone East Asian (Canwest News Service).

But could there be a difference in the degree of racial bias? In another new study, researchers at Northwestern University used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brains of people viewing images of both black and white people in the middle of a natural disaster (like Hurricane Katrina) or at an outdoor picnic. They found something really fascinating: Blacks showed greater empathy for other black people in pain than white people did for other whites. (The researchers had expected either both groups or neither to show a strong in-group bias.) Perhaps less surprisingly, the more a black person identified with his race, the more likely he was to show greater empathy for his fellow blacks. Maybe blacks associate with their race more than whites do? It’s interesting to speculate.
The researchers conclude that how much we’re able to feel the pain of others and how much we’re willing to help them depends on how similar we are to them and how much we identify with them. As psychologist Joan Chiao, who worked on the study, explains:

We found that everybody reported empathy and showed increased neural response within brain regions associated with empathy toward the Hurricane Katrina victims. 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 in-group members was associated with increased neural activity within a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex (Northwestern University).

Category: Neuroscience

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One Response

  1. Dean says:

    I was wondering if explanatory style of other people affects empathy. Like your explanatory style of your own behavior determines your level of optimism or pessimism and predicts your propensity for depression. Maybe your ex. style of other people’s behavor predicts empathy or conversely discrimination such as racism.

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