Santa Lucia - Neurosciences and Rehabilitation Sapienza University of Rome

Curr Biol. 2010 Jun 8;20(11):1018-22. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.03.071. Epub 2010 May 27

Racial bias reduces empathic sensorimotor resonance with other-race pain

Although social psychology studies suggest that racism often manifests itself as a lack of empathy, i.e., the ability to share and comprehend others' feelings and intentions, evidence for differential empathic reactivity to the pain of same- or different-race individuals is meager. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation, we explored sensorimotor empathic brain responses in black and white individuals who exhibited implicit but not explicit ingroup preference and race-specific autonomic reactivity. We found that observing the pain of ingroup models inhibited the onlookers' corticospinal system as if they were feeling the pain. Both black and white individuals exhibited empathic reactivity also when viewing the pain of stranger, very unfamiliar, violet-hand models. By contrast, no vicarious mapping of the pain of individuals culturally marked as outgroup members on the basis of their skin color was found. Importantly, group-specific lack of empathic reactivity was higher in the onlookers who exhibited stronger implicit racial bias. These results indicate that human beings react empathically to the pain of stranger individuals. However, racial bias and stereotypes may change this reactivity into a group-specific lack of sensorimotor resonance.

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