n a defining image of the recent English riots, a man helped an injured youngster to his feet while an accomplice stole from the same victim’s bag. This sheer lack of empathy on the part of the perpetrators has shaken observers to their core. How could humans display such a lack of altruism toward their fellow man?
A possible clue comes from a new brain imaging study that has examined links between the neural correlates of empathy, an act of altruism, and participants’ subjective sense of their social status. Among people who feel they have low status, the study finds, increased neural markers of empathy are actually related to reduced altruism. The researchers surmised this is because any feelings of empathy are quashed by a grudging sense of low status. This could be a kind of defence mechanism whereby self-interest dominates over empathy for others. A possible lesson is that by reversing people’s feelings of low status, through educational opportunities and other interventions, we all gain, by reinstating the usual link between empathy and altruism.
Ma, Y., Wang, C., and Han, S. (2011). Neural responses to perceived pain in others predict real-life monetary donations in different socioeconomic contexts. NeuroImage, 57 (3), 1273-1280 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.05.003