An observer feels more empathy for someone in pain when that person is in the same social group, according to new research in the July 1 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.   The study shows that perceiving others in pain activates a part of the brain associated with empathy and emotion more if the observer and the observed are the same race.

The findings may show that unconscious prejudices against outside groups exist at a basic level.   The study confirms an in-group bias in empathic feelings, something that has long been known but never before confirmed by neuroimaging technology. Researchers have explored group bias since the 1950s. In some studies, even people with similar backgrounds arbitrarily assigned to different groups preferred members of their own group to those of others. This new study shows those feelings of bias are also reflected in brain activity.  

‘Our findings have significant implications for understanding real-life social behaviors and social interactions,’ said Shihui Han, PhD, at Peking University in China, one of the study authors.

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