The neuroscience of racism
The recent furore about the booing of AFL player Adam Goodes has reignited a debate about racism in both the sport and in Australia. Why do we show prejudice towards people whom we perceive to be different to us? In this episode of A Grey Matter, we discuss how your brain might respond differently when you see the pain of someone from another racial group.
Donna Lu Hi, I’m Donna Lu, and you’re listening to A Grey Matter, the neuroscience podcast from the Queensland Brain Institute.
Donna Lu This week, in an episode that combines neuroscience, psychology and sociology, we’re talking about racial bias and empathy.
Commentator Kicks it inside fifty, Goodes the target, one on one, takes the mark, little nudge, plays on and goals. [Booing sounds]. The champ Adam Goodes puts through Sydney’s first of the day, the two-time Brownlow medallist.
Commentator He's had to deal with all sorts of booing, etc., around the country for all sorts of reasons.
Karl Langdon, Former AFL Player It doesn't matter your colour or creed, booing is part of the game.
Sabra Lane, 7:30 Report The former Australian of the year has described it as a continual battle, as week after week he is booed and jeered by rival fans.
Grant Hansen, Marngrook Footy Show I think a lot of people need to grow up. I don't see why they are booing.
Charlie Pickering, The Weekly But the question everyone’s asking about the booing is the same question they ask about your favourite character in Friends: is it racial? 
Adam Spencer, Q&A If he is in interpreting it as racial vilification, that’s where you just, as a decent human being, stop doing it.
Donna Lu The recent furore about the booing of AFL player Adam Goodes has reignited a debate about racism in both the sport and the country. The controversy has been described as ‘a watershed moment for race relations in Australian history’, with one commentator suggesting that, ‘As a culture, we still haven't learnt to embrace the Indigenous one.’
Discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnicity is a subset of a broader phenomenon. We tend to show prejudice towards people whom we perceive to be different to us—
Yuan Cao —the idea being we somehow like or feel closer to people who are more similar to us, so more like us. That’s what we call an ‘ingroup’—so people we consider to be, in a way, ourselves, our circle.
Donna Lu That’s Yuan Cao, a PhD student at the school of Psychology at UQ. She’s recently completed a Masters of Neuroscience with Associate Prof Ross Cunnington here at the Queensland Brain Institute.
Yuan Cao It’s been repeatedly shown that we tend to have more empathy for people we consider to be like us.
Donna Lu So, part of the in-group.
Yuan Cao Part of the ingroup, yes.
Donna Lu In experiments, even when in-groups are formed by something as arbritrary as, for example, preferring an artist over another—people are more likely to think that their fellow members are more intelligent, moral and fair than other people—people in the ‘outgroup’.
Yuan Cao Examples from previous studies—people who are really into a sport, like football.
Donna Lu Fans show more of an empathy response to fans of the same football club than fans of a rival team.
Yuan Cao And another example—things that we are a bit more interested in—are more about a person’s background, so it seems like we have more empathy for people who look a bit more like us. So people from the same racial background.
Donna Lu In the case of Adam Goodes, it’s a combination of the two. But what exactly is empathy? It’s, commonly described, of course, as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Here’s Yuan again.
Yuan Cao What we we’re really looking at is the idea that we feel a little bit of discomfort when we see others’ distress or situation. We like to say that we experience a little bit of others’ pain, and that helps us to understand what they’re going through, and hopefully that will lead to altruism or helping behaviours of some sort. That’s sort of the thing we look at. It’s more about the arousal you feel when you see others’ distress.
Donna Lu Yuan’s research looked at how the brain responds differently when you see the pain of someone from a different racial group.
Yuan Cao What we did was really building on previous work showing that people tend to have more neural empathy—their brain responds more—when they see people who are from their same racial background in pain compared to people of another background. So we were wondering if there’s anything we can do about that, if there’s some way that it can be reduced, so we have more empathy for people who are a little bit different to us.
So what we wanted to see was if we have more contact in daily life with someone of another race, would that help us to have more empathy for them as well? We looked at that by recruiting international students, and to limit the, you know, possible variations, we chose one group and that was Chinese students currently studying in Australia. And we wanted to see how much empathy response in the brain they had when they saw both Chinese and Caucasian actors in pain.
Donna Lu So how exactly do you measure empathy? What happens in our brains when we feel for someone else?
Yuan Cao We have a lot of ways of tapping into that. One of the common ways is to ask someone how they feel. We can do that by giving them a questionnaire to do, so asking them, in daily life, how they would normally respond to others’ distress, or in experiments, we show them videos or photos that are a little bit unpleasant, and get them to report how they are feeling or how the person in the video or photo is feeling.
Donna Lu These are called explicit measures—the things that participants report. The other way of measuring empathy is implicitly—looking at how someone feels without actually asking them.
Yuan Cao So that involves things like taking physiological measures from them, so, things like, how much they sweat—because when we’re a bit more aroused we sweat more. And also we do something called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. So that’s to look at how their brain responds when they witness others’ distress. And we’re really interested in how parts of their brain respond that we know relate to emotions. Whether they show a bit more response in those areas when they see others in distress.
Donna Lu How did you go about obtaining those images? Did you actually have to cause pain to people?
Yuan Cao [Laughs] No…fortunately. What we’ve been doing is…we’ve got some volunteers—really nice people [Donna laughs] and we’ve used a special needle. So the syringe is what any needle syringe will look like, but the needle itself is actually blunt at the end.
Donna Lu The videos the researchers produced were short, about 3 seconds long, showing the needle contacting a person’s face. They then cut the footage which made it look as if the actor was actually getting an injection.
Yuan Cao So we put them inside the fMRI scanner, showed them videos of painful touch made to Chinese and Caucasian actors and recorded how their brain responded. And the main thing we found was: people—for the Chinese participants—people who had more contact with Caucasians in their daily life, they actually had more of a response, or more neural empathy, for Caucasian actors.
Donna Lu There are two particular areas in the brain that are involved in mediating empathy: the anterior cingulate cortex, and the anterior insular.
Yuan Cao Those two areas are really responsive when we see others’ distress. It could be like what we’re doing, which is more physical pain, but others have also looked at more emotional pain—so, getting people to look at photos of victims of natural disasters, or social exclusion, getting them to see their friends being excluded from an online game, all sorts of things.
Donna Lu In previous studies, activation in these brain areas has been associated with helpful or do-good behaviour, but Yuan’s quick to emphasise that in their rese arch, they weren’t able to measure whether empathetic participants demonstrate more altruism in their day-to-day lives.
Donna Lu What’s also interesting is how the brains of people who have been raised in a predominantly other-race society respond.
Yuan Cao So, they will be the people who have had extensive contact with people of another race, assuming they are from a minority background.
Donna Lu I, for example, am Chinese, but grew up here in Australia. According to previous research, my neural response is likely to be similar when I witness the pain of Caucasians—the majority racial background—and Chinese people, a minority.
In Yuan’s study, they wanted to look at the effect of contact, so they recruited Chinese students who had recently arrived in Australia, from a few months to an upper limit of five years. What they found was that the effect of exposure was quite rapid.
Yuan Cao The other thing I think is quite interesting that we found is in terms of the contact or exposure – it’s not really about the type of contact or exposure, because we looked at things like friendship, which is a more extensive form of contact, or less extensive ones, such as people in the neighbourhood, or people on campus, and what we found was that it’s really about the amount of contact that’s important, not the type of contact. It seems like the more exposure, the more contact you have, that will make a difference, rather than—you have to get those really extensive ones like friendship.
Donna Lu — become friends with someone.
Yuan Cao Mm.
Donna Lu The research gives us some food for thought, particularly in light of the booing of Adam Goodes.
Yuan Cao I do think that our study shows that a multicultural society I s a good thing. I do think it means that we should look into having more contact and exposure to people who are a little bit different to us, people who we consider to be part of the outgroup.
Donna Lu I’m Donna Lu, and that’s all for this episode. Let us know what you think or if you have any requests for future podcasts. We’re on Twitter @QBI_UQ and on Facebook, or you could give us a review on iTunes.
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Published 27 Aug 2015