As part of a study on how to tackle racial prejudice, neuroscientists in Italy have been researching the empathy people feel when they watch pain being inflicted on others. The results appear to show that people with pre-existing racial prejudice empathise with pain inflicted on people of their own race more than they do when pain is inflicted on people from other ethnic groups.
Participants in the study were asked to watch images of hands being either pierced with needles or touched with a cotton bud. Meanwhile their brain’s responses were monitored. Computers recorded the number of pain neurons that were fired in the brains of participants as they watched the various images.
Said Professor Alessio Avenanti, a psychologist at the University of Bologna: “The same circuits involved in the direct perception of pain in our bodies are stimulated during observation of pain inflicted on others. This primitive and automatic response was almost absent while observing pain stimuli inflicted on people of a different race.”
Participants did however respond with empathy when they watched pain being inflicted on people from no pre-conceived racial category – ie people with purple skin which doesn’t belong to any particular human race. This was taken to show that by default, humans do empathise with pain in people of other races. Empathy is only diminished as a result of racial bias.
Professor Avenati concludes that cultural and social conditioning about race is so strong in human beings that it can be measured by studying brain activity, which means that overcoming such negative conditioning could be more difficult than previously thought.