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Science Note

Air Date: Week of

New research from Italian scientists reveals that the intensity of your empathic feelings toward others may depend on skin color. This could have implications for doctor-patient relations. Planet Harmony’s Amie Ninh reports.


YOUNG: Just ahead – why the city of Cleveland plans to snoop into people’s garbage. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Amie Ninh.

NINH: The saying “I feel your pain” is meant to convey that someone understands your emotions. But new research shows this common phrase may be a bit more complex than you think.

Humans have the capacity for empathy, but Italian scientists say the intensity of your feelings toward others may depend on the color of their and your skin.

When we see or think about someone in physical pain, our nervous system naturally responds as if we feel that pain ourselves.

Researchers applied this idea of pain empathy in a small study. Some three dozen people, half Italian and half African, watched short films of needles pricking both black and white hands. The researchers recorded the response activity of a muscle in participants’ hands to determine how much they reacted to the pain shown on the film screen. They found that people responded more strongly when the character in pain was of the same race as they were, while characters of a different race evoked less of a response.

If the films showed an alien violet hand, however, participants were more likely to respond physically then if hand were of the other race. The researchers say this implies that humans empathize by default unless racial prejudice interferes. The scientists believe the study could have implications for doctor-patient relations. If doctors have stronger racial biases, they may under-treat the pain of patients of other races. And despite obvious differences in cultural and racial mix between the U.S. and Italy, the scientists say they would expect similar results if the study were conducted here.

In a perfect world, the color of our skin wouldn’t matter. But here on earth, the truth can be painful. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. For Planet Harmony and Living on Earth, I’m Amie Ninh.


YOUNG: Amie reports for our sister program, Planet Harmony, which welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at My Planet Harmony dot com.



Abstract in Current Biology


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