Skin Color Affects Ability to Empathize with Pain

May 27, 2010


By Denise Mann

THURSDAY, May 27, 2010 ( — Humans are hardwired to feel another person’s pain. But they may feel less innate empathy if the other person’s skin color doesn’t match their own, a new study suggests.

When people say “I feel your pain,” they usually just mean that they understand what you’re going through. But neuroscientists have discovered that we literally feel each other’s pain (sort of).

If you see—or even just think of—a person who gets whacked in the foot, for instance, your nervous system responds as if you yourself had been hit in the same spot, even though you don’t perceive the pain physically.

Researchers in Italy are reporting that subtle racial bias can interfere with this process—a finding with important implications for health care as well as social harmony.

“Pain empathy is basically feeling someone else’s pain,” says Carmen Green, MD, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who was not involved in the research. “This paper tells us that race plays a role in pain empathy.”

In the study, which appears in the journal Current Biology, people of Italian and African descent watched short film clips that showed needles pricking black- and white-skinned hands. As they watched, researchers measured the participants’ empathy (i.e., their nervous-system activity) by monitoring sensors attached to the same spot on their hands. They also tracked the participants’ heart rates and sweat-gland activity, a common measure of emotional response.

“White observers reacted more to the pain of white than black models, and black observers reacted more to the pain of black than white models,” says the lead researcher, Alessio Avenanti, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Bologna.

The researchers also showed clips of a needle pricking a hand painted bright purple. Both the Italian and African participants were more likely to empathize with this intentionally strange-looking hand than with the hand of another race, which implies that the earlier lack of empathy was due to skin color, not just difference. “This is quite important, because it suggests that humans tend to empathize by default unless prejudice is at play,” says Avenanti.

The researchers gauged prejudice by testing the participants on how readily they associated good and bad concepts with Italians and Africans. The people who showed a strong preference for their own group in this test also tended to show the least empathy when the hand belonging to the other group was needled, the researchers found.

Next page: Findings would be the same in the U.S.

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