Research & Insights

How Diversity Makes Us More Empathetic

New research suggests that increased contact with people from different races can increase our empathy towards others.

The study, conducted by psychology scholar Yuan Cao of the University of Queensland and colleagues, was published in the September 2015 issue of the journal Cortex. It included 23 recent Chinese immigrants to Australia and explored the topic of “neural empathy,” or the way our brain reacts when we see others in pain.

The strength of this reaction is thought to be related to the relationship between ourselves and the person in pain. That is, our brain reacts more strongly when people in our “in-group” are in pain than when people in an “out-group” are in pain.

Using fMRI technology, the researchers examined the brains of the Chinese participants as they watched a video of actors “receiving a painful touch with a syringe needle or a non-painful touch with a cotton-tip to either the left or right check of their face.” Some of the actors were Caucasian and others were Chinese.

The researchers found that the Chinese participants reacted more strongly to the videos of the Chinese actors receiving a touch from a needle than the videos of the Caucasian actors.

However, exposure to Caucasian people in their life mattered. The researchers found for the Chinese “participants who reported greater contact with Caucasian people, (they) show(ed) greater neural empathic activation to pain in Caucasian actors.”

Although the sample size was small, the study suggests that being exposed to people who are racially different from us can actually change how our brain reacts to them empathetically. “Overall,” they report, “our study shows that racial bias in neural empathy changes rapidly with experience in new immigrants.”


Yuan Cao, Jessica McFadyen, and Ross Cunnington, University of Queensland, Australia
Luis Sebastian Contreras-Huerta, University of Queensland and Universidad Diego Portales, Chile

Posted: September 16, 2015
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