High ingroup empathy linked to an expanded sense of self
- Published on 14 September 2010
- Written by Connor Wood
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Researchers have long known that ingroup favoritism – the tendency for people to prefer members of their own social group – plays a major role in human affairs. But recently, psychologists at Northwestern University have begun examining the issue from a new perspective: rather than focusing on negative outgroup bias, long the staple of favoritism research, they chose instead to study “extreme altruism” for ingroup members. That is, instead of studying why people often don’t like outsiders, they studied why people sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to offer help to people they consider part of their own group.
In a paper published in March in the journal NeuroImage, a group of Northwestern scientists showed that Caucasian-Americans and African-Americans both reported similar high levels of empathy when shown photos of white people in distress. Caucasians also reported about the same high level of empathy when shown pictures of black people in pain. This level served as a kind of baseline, showing that neither Caucasians nor African-Americans were biased against members of any group, and that both had strong empathic responses to images of pain. In addition, both groups showed a strong willingness to help distressed subjects of any ethnic group. However, African-Americans who were shown pictures of other black people in distressing situations showed even greater levels of empathy and reported a greater willingness to provide help to the people in the pictures.
These results led researchers to postulate that, because African-Americans reported a greater level of identification with their own ethnic group, extraordinary levels of empathy may be the product of an expanded sense of personal identity. That is, African-Americans who, like white Americans, appeared to show high levels of empathy in general but who showed especially high levels of empathy for members of their own ingroup may have done so because they registered the distressed subjects in the photos as being, quite literally, a part of themselves. Tests done with fMRI scans seemed to corroborate this: greater activity in an area of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) was interpreted by researchers as evidence of “greater self evaluative processing” by African-Americans viewing pictures of other black people.
The concept of expanding one’s circle of self-identification is one with a long history in theological and religious thought, particularly among mystics, who often report experiences in which their sense of identity expands to encompass other people, inanimate objects, and even the entire cosmos. While no one is claiming that looking at pictures of members of one’s own ethnic group experiencing distress is tantamount to a religious experience, the findings reported at Northwestern suggest that personal identity – what is included within a person’s sense of “I” – can have real effects with potentially religious ramifications. After all, the New Testament exhorts its readers to love their neighbors. Maybe it’s our brains that tell us who those neighbors are.
See a related article here.