This paper in the current issue of the journal Neuron claims to add some MRI findings to the evidence that human empathy and kindness stop at the border between "our group" and "others." Tania Singer, Grit Hein and their colleagues found that Swiss soccer fans feel more, and do more, about the suffering of fellow fans than they do for supporters of a rival team.

The researchers recruited 16 Zurich men from a local fan club, telling them they would be involved in a comparison of brain activity while (a) watching soccer and (b) feeling pain. Before the experiment, the volunteers filled out forms (including a "Sport Spectator Identification Scale" and an assessment about how they felt about the other guys in the room) as they sat with another supporter of their team and two fans of its main rival.

Then one of the rival fans peeled off (ostensibly for another experiment), and the "pain electrodes" came out. The volunteer, now placed in a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner, had to decide which of the other two men in the room (a fellow fan and a rival fan) would get a painful shock. In addition, he was given some choices about how to treat the other two (who were actually students working with the experimenter). The real volunteer's options were, first, help out the victim by agreeing to take half of his electrical shock; second, forget about the other guy and watch a video (of soccer, of course) while the victim got zapped; third, refuse to help but actually watch the other man suffer pain. Each participant did this nine times.

That makes for 144 separate decisions about whether to help a fellow human being—and which fellow human to assist. On average, each fan offered to help a fellow fan significantly (not hugely, but still significantly) more than he offered to help a rival fan. (You might be happy to know that the "watch him suffer" option was picked only nine times, too few for much statistical analysis.)

By the way, the MRI scans found that higher-than-background activity in a region called the anterior insula, triggered by watching a fellow-fan suffer, were correlated with the decision to help. On the other hand, not helping the outgroup member correlated with activity in another region, the nucleus accumbens. What led to Hein et al.'s interest in these regions? The insula has been found to spark up when people watch others in pain, while the nucleus accumbens was active in this experiment when people watched cheaters being punished.

As I mentioned a few months ago, a Chinese team last year found that reactions to others' pain in another brain region, the anterior cingulate cortex, was also affected by Us-Them perceptions (the 33 students in that study responded more strongly to films of Chinese in pain than of non-Chinese). And this study found that people's unconscious brain response to simple motions in others also varied according to whether the others were of the same race.

In using sports fandom as the "Us-Them" dividing line, this new paper is a reminder that race and ethnicity aren't special. People divide themselves up in countless ways, and any one of them can get you zapped or worse.

Hein, G., Silani, G., Preuschoff, K., Batson, C., & Singer, T. (2010). Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members' Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping Neuron, 68 (1), 149-160 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.09.003

Xu, X., Zuo, X., Wang, X., & Han, S. (2009). Do You Feel My Pain? Racial Group Membership Modulates Empathic Neural Responses Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (26), 8525-8529 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2418-09.2009

 Gutsell, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2010). Empathy constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observation of outgroups Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.03.011 

Singer, T., Seymour, B., O'Doherty, J., Stephan, K., Dolan, R., & Frith, C. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others Nature, 439 (7075), 466-469 DOI: 10.1038/nature04271 Ice code