Brain signatures detect racially biased and politically correct behaviors

Empathy for others is affected by race but this can be modulated by a secondary cognitive response, according to a study published online this July in Neuroscience. The study points to the importance of education and social integration to overcome racism.

Recent research has shown that the ability to share feelings with those of someone in pain is affected by the racial difference between people. More specifically, neuroscientific research has found that empathy responses develop from an automatic, bottom-up process which is then followed by a more complex process involving top-down processes. Furthermore, research has identified a neural signature for this automatic process relating to racial biases for the in-group, sometimes referred to as the ‘‘differential empathic activation for race (DEAR) effect”.

The study, led by Manuela Berlingeri of the University of Urbino Carlo Bo, performed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study on 25 Caucasian participants to explore these racial biases and look for the signs of politically correct behaviors within the brain. Videos were presented of either African or Caucasian actors touched by either a rubber eraser or a needle. Participants were instructed to empathize with the actors during the video presentation and to explicitly judge the pain level experienced by the actors. They also completed a measure of their implicit race biases and motivation to respond in a politically correct way.

The results revealed that on average, the participants were not explicitly racist, yet many had implicit racial bias. This correlated with a higher in-group differential empathic activation for race effect, which involved activity within the left anterior insula and the left temporo-parietal junction, when watching the video of someone receiving pain.

In contrast, when judging the level of pain, a significant out-group differential empathic activation for race effect emerged in the prefrontal cortices (ventral and dorsal prefrontal cortex, and premotor cortex). In addition, while the magnitude of the painful experience attributed to Caucasians and Africans was the same, the participants were significantly slower when judging the African’s pain experience.

The researchers proposed “a model that combines these two contrasting forces at the neurobiological and behavioral level”. Firstly, this involved a more evolutionary-based component of uncontrollable automatic responses, related to a differential empathic activation for race, biased in favor of in-group members. Secondly, it involved a more culturally evolved and cognitively dependent component based on the explicit application of social rules, as evidenced by the out-group effect.

They concluded, this “may have some practical implications as it provides a further argument in favor of intensive and continuing education, and social integration to overcome racism.”