Pain empathy increases with other-race contact, study shows


flickr photo by geofones shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

When a person in pain is of the same race as the observer, a greater response is activated in the observer’s brain associated with empathy.

Queensland University investigated if other-race empathy levels were affected over time. Chinese students who had first arrived in Australia within the past 6 months to 5 years were recruited for the study. Each Chinese student’s level of contact with other races across different social situations were compared using rating scales.

During fMRI (a neuroimaging  procedure used to measure brain activity by measuring blood flow), participants were asked to observe videos of own-race and other-race individuals receiving painful or non-painful touch. 

Empathy and familiarity

The typical racial bias in neural responses to observed pain was evident. Activation in the part of the brain associated with empathy (the anterior cingulate cortex) was greater for pain observed in own-race compared to that of other-race people.

However, activation in the anterior cingulate in response to pain in other races increased significantly with the level of contact participants reported with people of the other race. This correlation did not depend on the closeness of contact or personal relationships, but simply on the level of daily interactions with people of the other race the observer had experienced.


Racial bias in neural response to others’ pain is reduced with other-race contact