Intergroup relationships do not reduce racial bias in empathic neural responses to pain

Luis Sebastian Contreras-Huerta, Emily Hielscher, Chase S. Sherwell, Natalie Rens, Ross Cunnington

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Perceiving the pain of others activates similar neural structures to those involved in the direct experience of pain, including sensory and affective-motivational areas. Empathic responses can be modulated by race, such that stronger neural activation is elicited by the perception of pain in people of the same race compared with another race. In the present study, we aimed to identify when racial bias occurs in the time course of neural empathic responses to pain. We also investigated whether group affiliation could modulate the race effect. Using the minimal group paradigm, we assigned participants to one of two mixed-race teams. We examined event-related potentials from participants when viewing members of their own and the other team receiving painful or non-painful touch. We identified a significant racial bias in early ERP components at N1 over frontal electrodes, where Painful stimuli elicited a greater negative shift relative to Non-Painful stimuli in response to own race faces only. A long latency empathic response was also found at P3, where there was significant differentiation between Painful and Non-Painful stimuli regardless of Race or Group. There was no evidence that empathy-related brain activity was modulated by minimal group manipulation. These results support a model of empathy for pain that consists of early, automatic bias towards own-race empathic responses and a later top-down cognitive evaluation that does not differentiate between races and may ultimately lead to unbiased behaviour.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)263-270
Number of pages8
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • ERP
  • Empathy
  • Racial bias
  • Social group membership


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