Racial bias reduces empathic sensorimotor resonance with other-race pain

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Although social psychology studies suggest that racism often manifests itself as a lack of empathy [1, 2], i.e., the ability to share and comprehend others' feelings and intentions [3-7], evidence for differential empathic reactivity to the pain of same- or different-race individuals is meager [8, 9]. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation, we explored sensorimotor empathic brain responses [10-15] in black and white individuals who exhibited implicit but not explicit ingroup preference and race-specific autonomic reactivity [16-20]. We found that observing the pain of ingroup models inhibited the onlookers' corticospinal system as if they were feeling the pain [10-15, 21, 22]. Both black and white individuals exhibited empathic reactivity also when viewing the pain of stranger, very unfamiliar, violet-hand models. By contrast, no vicarious mapping of the pain of individuals culturally marked as outgroup members on the basis of their skin color was found. Importantly, group-specific lack of empathic reactivity was higher in the onlookers who exhibited stronger implicit racial bias. These results indicate that human beings react empathically to the pain of stranger individuals [3-7]. However, racial bias and stereotypes may change this reactivity into a group-specific lack of sensorimotor resonance [1-3, 9, 23, 24].

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1018-1022
Number of pages5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Jun 8 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)


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