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No racial bias? Really? A brain scan may give you away.

July 2, 2009 |  6:02 pm

Our brains may empathize along racial lines, even if we report no such bias. 

Observers shown video clips of subjects receiving painful stimuli showed increased brain activation in the areas associated with empathy and emotion when subjects shared the observer’s race, Chinese researchers reported in a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience on Wednesday. 

The study is the first to use brain imaging technology to confirm subconscious in-group prejudice, a topic that has been investigated since the 1950s.

Perceiving others’ pain is an automatic reaction that activates the same neural circuit in the brain as the one that is activated during first-person pain. This kind of empathic response has been shown, in studies, to be stronger if there is a connection between individuals. For example, a 2002 study showed that white college students who read a passage involving a black or white man charged with a criminal act reported greater empathy for, and assigned more lenient punishments to, the white defendant.

In this study, from Peking University in Beijing, Chinese and Caucasian university participants watched video clips showing faces of Chinese and Caucasian models with neutral expressions receiving either a painful (needle penetration) or non-painful (Q-tip touch) stimulation on the cheek. 

The participants were then asked to rate the amount of pain the model felt, as well as their own level of discomfort while watching the jabs. 

Race had no effect on the survey responses by either Chinese or Caucasian observers. But the same was not true in their brains.

While participants watched the videos, researchers used functional MRI to scan what was going on inside their heads. The scans revealed increased activation in the brain regions that mediate the empathic neural response. But when the painful simulations were applied to subjects who shared a race with observers, the neural responses increased significantly more than when the ones being stuck with needles were of the other racial group.

The findings suggest that bias against those from other groups may exist at a fundamental level in the human mind, despite what self-reports reveal. 

“If this is confirmed in future research, people then should be careful about their own behaviors during social interaction even though we intend to deal with in-group and out-group members equally well at the conscious level of the mind,” says coauthor Shihui Han, a professor at Peking University's Department of Psychology, in an e-mail.

-- Shara Yurkiewicz