Racial bias in neural empathic responses to pain.
Contreras-Huerta LS., Baker KS., Reynolds KJ., Batalha L., Cunnington R.
Recent studies have shown that perceiving the pain of others activates brain regions in the observer associated with both somatosensory and affective-motivational aspects of pain, principally involving regions of the anterior cingulate and anterior insula cortex. The degree of these empathic neural responses is modulated by racial bias, such that stronger neural activation is elicited by observing pain in people of the same racial group compared with people of another racial group. The aim of the present study was to examine whether a more general social group category, other than race, could similarly modulate neural empathic responses and perhaps account for the apparent racial bias reported in previous studies. Using a minimal group paradigm, we assigned participants to one of two mixed-race teams. We use the term race to refer to the Chinese or Caucasian appearance of faces and whether the ethnic group represented was the same or different from the appearance of the participant' own face. Using fMRI, we measured neural empathic responses as participants observed members of their own group or other group, and members of their own race or other race, receiving either painful or non-painful touch. Participants showed clear group biases, with no significant effect of race, on behavioral measures of implicit (affective priming) and explicit group identification. Neural responses to observed pain in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula cortex, and somatosensory areas showed significantly greater activation when observing pain in own-race compared with other-race individuals, with no significant effect of minimal groups. These results suggest that racial bias in neural empathic responses is not influenced by minimal forms of group categorization, despite the clear association participants showed with in-group more than out-group members. We suggest that race may be an automatic and unconscious mechanism that drives the initial neural responses to observed pain in others.