We are less likely to ‘feel the pain’ of people from other races, a study suggests

(Telegraph.uk) Scientists have long known that when people witness the pain of another person they often vicariously feel physical discomfort themselves.

But the new evidence suggests the power of the effect depends on whether the person is the same colour as them.

And the more signs of racial prejudice a person shows, the less empathy they are likely to have with other races’ pain.

The new evidence shows how racism feeds on itself – the lack of empathy causing greater dehumanising of others which in turn leads to more racism.

In the study, with people of Italian and African descent, participants were asked to watch and pay attention to short films depicting needles penetrating a person’s hand

A brain scanner then recorded how many pain neurons were firing in their brain.

Researchers found there was significantly less if the person being watched was from the different race.

It did not matter whether the watcher was black or white the effect was the same but it did matter if they held racial prejudices.

The more racist a person, the less empathy they felt.

At first the scientists thought that this might be because people are less likely to empathise with someone different to them.

But when they made up a race they found this was not true.

In further studies, the researchers tested individuals’ responses to pain inflicted on models with a violet hand.

Under those circumstances, participants’ empathetic responses were restored.

Professor Salvatore Aglioti, of the University of Rome, said that the second result showed that racism was not inherent but learnt. When we had no prejudice, we were more likely to empathise.

“This is quite important because it suggests that humans tend to empathise by default unless prejudice is at play,” he said.

Alessio Avenanti, co-author from the University of Bologna, said that without a stereotype then people did tend to care equally about others.

“However, racial bias may suppress this empathetic reactivity, leading to a dehumanised perception of others’ experience,” he said.

The new findings expand on previous studies that have concentrated on the emotional reaction to the pain of others, the researchers said.

Based on the findings, published n Current Biology, the scientists said that methods designed to restore empathy for people of other races might also help in dealing with racial prejudice.