April 27, 2010

Empathy for one's own race neurally distinct from empathy from mankind

From the related public release:
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 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."

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

NeuroImage doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.03.025

Neural basis of extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation

Vani A. Mathur et al.


A central evolutionary challenge for social groups is uniting a heterogeneous set of individuals towards common goals. One means by which social groups form and endure is by endowing group members with extraordinary prosocial proclivities, such as ingroup love, towards other group members. Here we examined the neural basis of extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation in African-American and Caucasian-American individuals using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Our results indicate that empathy for ingroup members is neurally distinct from empathy for humankind, more generally. People showed greater response within anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral insula when observing the suffering of others, but African-American individuals additionally recruit medial prefrontal cortex when observing the suffering of members of their own social group. Moreover, neural activity within medial prefrontal cortex in response to pain expressed by ingroup relative to outgroup members predicted greater empathy and altruistic motivation for one's ingroup, suggesting that neurocognitive processes associated with self identity underlie extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation for members of one's own social group. Taken together, our findings reveal distinct neural mechanisms of empathy and altruistic motivation in an intergroup context and may serve as a foundation for future research investigating the neural bases of intergroup prosociality, more broadly construed.



UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

Is it "race" or ethnicity. Do they have the same reaction viewing Ethiopians with flies in their eyes starving? I doubt it.

Belenos said...

Agreed. I suspect the minority status is having an effect here, as Caucasians don't seem to have the same reaction.

Onur Dincer said...
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Onur Dincer said...

Do they have the same reaction viewing Ethiopians with flies in their eyes starving? I doubt it.

or maybe even western Africans, the region where the vast majority of African-American roots are

Sarah said...

This is a really cool study. I'd think that people would be inclined to feel more strongly for people who they can identify with- cultural and racial identity, for example. The feeling that someone is "like me" makes it harder for us to distance ourselves from the fact that another human being is in pain, and makes us put ourselves in our shoes.

The genetic basis for altruism (the perpetuation of the selfish gene rather than of the individual) could have something to do with this too- we feel greater empathy for people who look like us because that's an indication that they share a higher percentage of genetic material.

Caucasian people may have shown less reaction because 'white' isn't a cultural identity. They'd likely lack the sense of community and communal interest that races with more of a group mindset. I doubt that it means they (or any of the other ethnicities tested) are less empathetic overall.

Thanks for drawing attention to such an interesting area of research! I recently started up a commentary/discussion blog on human nature- I think that this is really relevant. Is it ok if I link to you and include a little bit of discussion on the topic?

Marnie said...
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Marnie said...

Thanks, Sarah, for your comments. I think it is an interesting area of study as well.

To be honest, I have only read the abstract, but I would be interested to find out if the authors controlled for socioeconomic status.

Nicholas Kristof, the journalist, often writes on empathy. You can google him to read his many thoughts on the subject.

Marnie said...
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Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Worth observing (and hardly surprising), but it will take more study to figure out how "ingroup" v. "outgroup" distinctions are drawn mentally.