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.
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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, Ph.D., 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.
Hmm, what do you think the implications of this study are for transracial adoption?