A brain imaging study published in the journal Neuropsychologia has found evidence that experiences with other cultures might reverse racial ingroup biases in empathy. The findings revealed that White students who had spent extended time in China showed stronger neural responses to pain expressions on Asian faces compared to White faces.
With brain imaging, scientists have been able to pinpoint neural networks that are particularly active when people feel empathy for others. A growing number of studies are further demonstrating that people exhibit racial ingroup favoritism in this empathic brain activity.
More specifically, our brains tend to respond more strongly to seeing pain in someone from our own race versus a different race. Studies suggest that this favoritism translates to our intentions to help others, suggesting troubling consequences. For example, biases in empathy may have the potential to impact judicial decision-making and the medical treatment of pain.
Study author Yuqing Zhou and her team wondered whether sociocultural experiences might be able to reverse the racial ingroup bias in empathic brain activity. If this favoritism is learned throughout social development, repeated interactions with outgroup members in a new social context might dismantle this bias, fostering instead an outgroup favoritism.
“Racial ingroup favoritism in empathic brain activity has been widely observed and is associated with biased behavior toward same-race and other-race individuals,” explained Zhou, a postdoctoral research at the University of Wuerzburg. “Therefore, it is important to understand how racial ingroup favoritism could be changed through daily sociocultural experiences. This would help with the development of the future intervening approach to reduce racial ingroup favoritism.
To explore their hypothesis, Zhou and her colleagues first recruited a sample of 35 White students from North America and Western Europe who were currently studying in Beijing, China. Importantly, students in the experimental group had spent 6 to 36 weeks in China, while students in the control group had spent only 2 to 4 weeks in China.
During the experiment, the students were shown a series of faces that were either White or Asian and had either neutral expressions or expressions of pain. Participants rated the pain intensity of each face and the extent that each face induced their own painful feelings. Magnetoencephalography (MEG) was used to record participants’ neural responses to the pain vs. neutral expressions — an objective measure of empathy. The students also completed measures of trait empathy, ingroup identification, explicit attitudes toward Asians, and implicit attitudes toward Asians, and indicated how frequently they interacted with Asians.
The results showed that the group of students who had spent only 2 to 4 weeks in China showed a stronger neural response to pain expressions in White versus Asian faces and greater accuracy in detecting pain versus neutral expressions in White versus Asian faces. This was evidence of ingroup favoritism in empathic brain activity.
On the other hand, the students who has spent 6 to 36 weeks in China showed greater neural responses to pain expressions in Asian versus White faces and greater accuracy in detecting pain versus neutral expressions in Asian versus White faces. This suggests the opposite bias — outgroup favoritism in empathic brain activity. Furthermore, the experimental group showed neural activity in the right insula and sensorimotor areas after viewing pain expressions in Asian faces but not White faces.
“I think the major take-home message is ingroup favoritism of empathy could be changed and importantly, even reversed during intergroup interactions in a new social environment,” Zhou told PsyPost. “At the neural level, using magnetoencephalography, we found this change of empathy could be reflected by the sensorimotor responses (reflecting the sensorimotor resonance to other’s pain indicated by previous literature) to ingroup and outgroup’s pain.”
Notably, both groups had comparable scores for racial identification and implicit attitudes toward Asians, suggesting that the results were not due to identity or attitude changes. Instead, the study authors suggest that outgroup favoritism may have emerged from participants learning to better read expressions of pain in outgroup members’ faces after intensive sociocultural interactions.
These findings, the researchers say, suggest it might be possible to reduce racial ingroup biases in empathy through interactions with other cultures in a new environment. While the results will need to be replicated among larger samples, they further suggest that intercultural training and education could be helpful in promoting intergroup reconciliation following conflict.
“The current study compared the empathy responses to ingroup and outgroup between two groups of people (i.e. the short stay vs. the long stay group),” Zhou added. “An important follow-up study would be longitudinal research that tracks the change in one’s empathy responses to ingroup and outgroup members at different time points after his/her arrival to a foreign country (e.g. 1 week, 2 weeks, 1 month, 2 months, half year, etc), and see how the ingroup favoritism in empathy diminish and even reverse in the process of time. Another important question would be which factor contributes most to the diminishing of ingroup favoritism (e.g. the quality or the quantity of the social interaction with outgroup members).”
The study, “Racial outgroup favoritism in neural responses to others’ pain emerges during sociocultural interactions“, was authored by Yuqing Zhou, Chenyu Pang, and Yue Pu, Shihui Han.