Black Americans: More empathy than whites

April 26, 2010 at 3:18 PM
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EVANSTON, Ill., April 26 (UPI) -- A Northwestern University study suggests that on a neurological level, race matters when it comes to empathy for African-Americans in distress.

The study led by Assistant Professor Joan Chiao determined blacks showed greater empathy for African-Americans facing adversity as victims of Hurricane Katrina than whites demonstrated for Caucasian-Americans in pain.

"We found that everybody reported empathy toward the Hurricane Katrina victims," Chiao said. "But African-Americans showed greater empathic response to other African-Americans in emotional pain."

She said the findings suggests our ability to identify with another person dramatically changes how much we can feel the pain of another and how much we're willing to help them.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the study included an equal number of African-American and Caucasian-American study participants. They were shown pictures depicting either African-American or Caucasian-American individuals in painful (i.e. in the midst of a natural disaster) or neutral (attending an outdoor picnic) situations. Their emotional responses to the images were then analyzed.

"We think this is really interesting because it suggests mechanisms by which we can enhance our empathy and altruistic motivation simply by finding ways in which we have commonality across individuals and across groups," Chiao said.

The research is reported in the March issue of the journal NeuroImage.

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