Racial bias weakens our ability to feel someone else’s pain

By Ed Yong | May 27, 2010 12:00 pm

HandsYou’re watching a video of a needle piercing an anonymous hand, sinking slowly into the web between the thumb and index finger. You wince as you imagine the pain that the other person must feel, and for good reason. As you watch, you nervous system essentially duplicates the experience, responding as if you were vicariously feeling the pain yourself. This is typical of what happens when people see others in pain, but Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti has found an important exception to the rule. Racial bias can negate this ability to feel the pain of someone from a different ethnic group.

Avenanti recruited white and black Italian volunteers and asked them to watch videos of a stranger’s hand being poked. When people watch such scenes, it’s actually possible to measure their brain’s empathic tendencies. By simulating how the prick would feel, the brain activates the neurons of the observer’s hand in roughly the same place. These neurons become less excitable in the future. By checking their sensitivity, Avenanti could measure the effect that the video had on his recruits

He found the hallmarks of an empathic response only when the hands in the videos were prodded by a needle rather than a blunt piece of plastic, and only when he took measurements at the same part of the hand. But most interestingly of all, he found that the recruits (both white and black) only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, the volunteers were unmoved by the pain they saw.

So are we all just naturally and worryingly prejudiced? Far from it – Avenanti actually thinks that empathy is the default state, which only later gets disrupted by racial biases. He repeated his experiment using brightly coloured violet hands, which clearly didn’t belong to any known ethnic group. Despite the hands’ weird hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed a strong empathic response, reacting as they would to hands of their own skin tone.

The purple-hand experiment is a vital part of Avenanti’s study. Other scientists have suggested that people are less responsive to the pain of other ethnic groups, simply because their skin tones are less familiar and harder to identify with. But what could be more unfamiliar and less identifiable than a violet hand? It’s strong evidence that the lack of empathy from the first experiment stems not from mere novelty, but from racial biases.

Avenanti also found that the stronger these biases are, the weaker their empathic response. Each of his recruits did an ‘Implicit Association Test’, which looks for hidden biases by measuring how easily people make positive or negative connections between different ethnic groups. For example, white Italians are typically quicker to associate positive words with the term “Italian” and negative ones with the term “African”. And the faster they make those connections, the greater the differences in their responses to the stabbed black and white hands.

The recruit’s bodies betrayed their prejudices in other ways. On seeing the penetrating needles, their skins became moist and better at conducting electricity, a reflexive sign of emotional arousal. The needles evoked the same effect regardless of the hand they pierced, but the response was longer in coming if the hand belonged to a different ethnic group.

All in all, Avenanti says when we see pain befall a person from our own racial group, it immediately triggers resonant activity in our own nervous system. When we see the same event happening to someone of a different race, these simulations are weaker and take longer to form.

It’s a sad state of affairs but probably not an unpredictable one. After all, other studies have found that racial prejudices can make us dehumanise members of a different ethnic group. But more promisingly, Avenanti’s experiments suggest that things don’t have to be this way. Our default reaction, freed from the shackles of prejudice, is empathy with our fellow people, even if they do have freaky violet hands.

Reference: Current Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2010.03.071

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MORE ABOUT: bias, hands, needle, pain, prejudice, Race

Comments (17)

  1. I wonder how those volunteers who were unmoved upon seeing the injured hands of people from another ethnic group would respond if the victim was first described in more personal tones (name, age, occupation, or just something anecdotal about them). Learned biases may exist, but they are not impenetrable. It’s possible to move beyond seeing someone as an ‘other’ to an actual person.

  2. Rain

    It would be interesting to see the results of this test when duplicated on people who are less racially prejudiced, or lacking in bias altogether. I assume they did have a control of some sort for this and I don’t mean violet coloured hands, either.

  3. Hmmm, perhaps the violet hand thing explains why people can identify so easily with the blue people in Avatar?

    More seriously, I think Rain’s concern about a control case are valid…

  4. As far as seeking a control group goes, I think the violet-hand test (or something similar) is about as good as we can get. (Particularly considering repeatability.) It’s easy to find people who will swear up and down they have no racial bias whatsoever, but I fear that’s because relatively few people have incorporated “With regards to race, I am not perfectly color-blind” into their self-image.

  5. I’m relieved to hear about the purple hand. There is hope then.

  6. Chris M.

    Rain, Kirt, the correspondence between stronger IAT/bias results and a greater decrease in empathy pretty clearly suggests that less racially prejudiced people experience this effect to a lesser degree. Fairly solid control in itself, though not a complete “no bias” comparison test for standard human skin tones. For the best approximation of that, you’ve got to go to the purple hand.

    Finding a group altogether without bias is ridiculously difficult, according to pretty much all social psychology research. That’s part of why there was so much interest in the apparently very limited bias found in Williams syndrome children that Ed covered recently.

    The degree to which we pick up even the most subtle anti-outgroup biases is really pretty astonishing. Makes me curious how much of that dislike of strangers was at some point adaptive, and how we’re going to deal with incorporating that into our understanding of how we developed into people. It’s going to require some really careful footwork to keep the implications proper in the wider media.

  7. jones

    One of my favorite Mitch Hedberg lines;

    You know when it comes to racism, people say: ” I don’t care if they’re black, white, purple or green”… Ooh hold on now: Purple or Green? You gotta draw the line somewhere! To hell with purple people! – Unless they’re suffocating – then help’em.

  8. fatkid

    Nature:1 Tabula Rasa:0

    Too bad we ate or killed the people that could have managed the planet long enough to sustain it. Just because we are the last men standing doesn’t mean we are the best men.

  9. Cornflower

    There is a plausible explanation for empathy towards the purple hand that needs to be investigated in conjunction with the racial bias study, namely, that we can _more_ readily identify with (see similarities with outself) a human-looking hand of a naturally unhuman colour, such as purple, because there is no impediment to believing it might be our own race, our own ethnic group, our own neighbour. In fact, I would be surprised if we had shown as much racial bias against a purple hand to one that was not a similar colour to our own.

    We see the hand of our own colour, and we identify with its pain easily, as we don’t require much imagination to think of it as us. With the purple hand, because we do _not_ identify it with an _other_, a different group that cannot be us, we don’t have any baggage surrounding it. Think children’s characters, such as Dr. Seuss characters, where our anthropomorphic tendencies is to equate these strange creatures with ourselves, even if they talk nonsense words.

    Contrast this with a hand that is of a skin colour which exists in humanity, but is not closely matched to our own background. It is more difficult to think of that person as _us_, because we can categorized him/her as someone of that other group.

    This study is intriguing, and it opens the door to many other questions.

  10. I would caution also that those of us who think we are “less” prejudice or biased may simply be better schooled in how to avoid looking like a bigot. This kind of study might be very eye opening for those who claim to be “less” or “not” racially prejudiced.

    I make no such claim. I know I am a human being who strives daily to put aside the less admirable parts of my upbringing. HoweverI squirm at the idea of being tested for how I really feel rather than how I think I do — but it might be good for me to see it so I could be more aware of how to overcome it better.

  11. Fay Lovecraft

    why didn’t they test with any biracial people?

  12. jdmimic

    Cornflower brings up the very point I was thinking about. I question whether this study says anything about “racial prejudice” rather than simply the ability to see the observed appendage as a part of oneself. If the hand looks like one of yours, you are more likely to self-identify with it. The purple hand can be self-associated because it is outside the limits of normal skin tone variation. If it has a normal skin tone that is different from one’s own, it is clearly not one’s own hand and thus is harder to self-identify with it.

    I am not saying people don’t have racial bias or prejudice, but i am unconvinced this study shows that. Numerous studies have shown that people empathize with others and that they empathize faster with those closest to their own appearance. This study is no different.

    I might suggest a way to test this though. Have the people paint or dye their hands to look like those in the picture and see if their reactions are altered. Would they then respond to the other color as their own or their natural skin color?

  13. outeast

    Not convinced that Cornflower’s hypothesis adds anything new – surely the ‘baggage’ surrounding this identifiable ‘other’, this sense of a ‘different group that cannot be us’ is racial prejudice?

  14. socialbrain

    I think the purple hand is a good experimental control for visual familiarity and physical similarit — in the absence of cultural sterotypes (we usually don’t have prejudice for purple people…!). The purple hand is perceived as unfamiliar and dissimilar to the self, however the brain incorporates the pain of this hand. Thus lower response toward the other race member’s pain is not due to reduced visual familiarity or somatic dissimilarity, but is likely linked to social stereotypes. This is supported by the relation between empathic brain response and Implicit Association Test, suggesting that the brain of people with high racial bias is insensitive to other-race pain. I think I like this study that suggests that cultural conditioning shapes our brain functions.

  15. Re

    Ed,

    Were the black Italians African immigrants, or were they born and raised in Italy? Did the black Italians associate negative words with the term “Italian” and positive words with the term “African”?

    When the race IAT is used on American participants, white Americans have a pro-white bias, but black Americans on the whole have both a pro-white and pro-black bias. I assume that this is because American culture as a whole associates whiteness with positivity and blackness with negativity, and black Americans are raised in American culture. I wonder if the black Italians were raised in a black-majority culture, or if they were raised in white-majority Italy.

  16. Giorgy84

    I’ve found the original article here:
    http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(10)00515-4

    I think this study is more about “embodiment of others’ painful sensations” – not exactly empathy – at least not emotional empathy. All the effects of race are found at a sensorimotor, not emotional level of brain processing.
    Interestingly, it seems that emotional reactivity (skin conductance response), although less immediate, is present also for the pain of outgroup members: thus, even when racial bias is at play, people emotionally react to the pain of outgroup members – slowly, but they do!
    This leads me to think about how embodiment and emotional empathy may be related to racism etc. Imagine you are watching a dog in pain. Even if you feel emotions for the dog (e.g. concern), probably your brain will not embody the dog’s pain in your sensorimotor neural maps – as if you were feeling the dog’s pain on your body.
    I think something similar may automatically happen in the brain of people with high racial bias when perceiving the pain of outgroup members. In principle they may feel unpleasant emotions for others-race pain (even concern?!). But, according to this research, their brain would treat that pain as the pain of a non-human being.
    This is a neuroscientific proof that racists perceive other-race members in a de-humanized manner. I’m wondering what type of legal implications this research may have.

  17. Jay S

    It appears that nobody took into account that the reason for the subconscious nervous response has less to do with “racism” than it does with “hey, is that my hand?!”

    If the hand I see being stabbed with a needle is ~obviously~ not mine, my brain only responds with, “Hey, that looks like it could hurt.”

    If the hand being stabbed look like mine, my brain responds with, “OW! OW! OW! OW! OW! OW! … Oh, wait…that’s not me.”

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