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Neural Responses Indicate Our Willingness To Help

October 8, 2010

Witnessing a person from our own group or an outsider suffer pain causes neural responses in two very different regions of the brain. And, the specific region activated reveals whether or not we will help the person in need. Researchers at the University of Zurich studied the brain responses of soccer fans and now have neurobiological evidence for why we are most willing to help members of our own group.

Our reactions to shocking news clips on television demonstrate that human beings can remain remarkably cool in the face of other peoples’ suffering. And yet, we are also ready to sacrifice ourselves for others, even if no tangible reward awaits. Why such a difference? Social psychology has proven that our propensity to help is modulated by social factors. Little, however, was known about the underlying neural processes and how they are influenced by group affiliation. Now, research in neuroscience at the University of Zurich has documented that the brain regions activated when witnessing people suffer vary according to whether those suffering are perceived as group members. “And most importantly, the differences in neural responses indicate whether the observer will help the suffering person later on,” as neuroscientist Grit Hein confirmed.

Grit Hein, Tania Singer (now director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences) and social psychologist C. Daniel Batson (University of Kansas, USA) measured the neural responses of soccer fans: Test subjects watched either a member of their own group (ingroup) or someone from a rival team (outgroup) be subjected to painful shocks through electrodes attached to the back of their hands. The test subjects could then decide whether or not to help an ingroup or outgroup member by receiving a portion of the pain themselves. Helping had a high cost as it was inherently linked to personal physical pain. Test persons also had the option to simply watch the other person receive the shocks or to distract themselves from the unpleasant scene by watching a soccer video.

The scientific journal Neuron has published the revealing results of the study: Should a person from an ingroup suffer pain, brain regions associated with empathy for others’ pain are activated. A greater degree of activation in these regions correlates with a greater willingness to help. If, however, test subjects saw a member of an outgroup subjected to pain, brain regions motivated by reward were activated. A high degree of reward-related activation corresponds to a negative perception of the person belonging to the rival team, and the willingness to help decreases as brain activation rises.

Measuring neural responses also proves to be a more accurate prediction tool than questionnaires when trying to determine how willing people are to help people outside of their group affiliation. “After all, who is going to admit they’d help a friend in need but let an outsider suffer?” observed Grit Hein.

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