Is your social brain wired to differ between how you relate to other people? Is your basic empathic ability changing – in the brain – according to whether you can relate to another person or not? Following some very interesting findings in a study reported in a Neuron article, the brain makes such a difference. Neuroimaging is consolidating its role in the domain of social psychology.
The study comes from the Banaji’s laboratory at Harvard. In the study the researchers showed a group of college students pictures of two target individuals who were described as having liberal or conservative political views — a step designed to make the students either identify or not identify with those individuals. While their brains were scanned using functional MRI, the students were asked to predict the feelings and attitudes of the two targets in various situations. For example, they were questioned whether the target would enjoy having a flatmate from a different culture or think that European movies were better than their Hollywood counterparts. Finally, the students completed a version of the Implicit Association Test (see also this link), which was designed to index how strongly they automatically associate themselves with the liberal or conservative target (citation from NRN).
The brain responses differed significantly whether the subjects saw pictures of people with politically similar or dissimilar views as themselves. The ventral medial prefrontal cortex was more engaged when the students were mentalizing a target with similar political views, whereas the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex was more active when the students were considering a target with views on the different end of the political spectrum from their own.
How the brain changes according to social relations: (A) A region of ventral mPFC showed greater activation during judgments of the target to whom participants considered themselves to be more similar. For participants who associated self with the liberal target (left set of bars), the response of the ventral mPFC was higher for liberal targets (middle, blue bar) than conservative targets (rightmost, red bar), and no difference was observed for judgments of self (leftmost, green bar) and the liberal target. In contrast, for participants who did not associate with the liberal target (right set of bars), the response of ventral mPFC was higher for conservative than liberal targets, and no difference was observed for judgments of self and the conservative target. (B) A region of dorsal mPFC showed the opposite pattern of results, that is, greater activation during judgments of the target from whom participants considered themselves to be dissimilar.
One may object and say that this dichotomy between democrats and liberals is an US-only study. Many other countries have a political system consisting of many political parties. But the human social world is filled with other examples that this study pertains to. Skin colour, for example, has alone led to prejudice and atrocities throughout history, and still occurs. Religious belief is another example.
Other differences are more covert. Think, for example, about the current World Championship in football. Football, or any team game, is a good example, because you find the same dichotomy between being “in” or “out” of a group as you find in the US study. You’re either with team A or B – even if you have no particular reason to favour one over the other (e.g. supporting Argentina while being a Norwegian). Strange as it is, football, being an innocent game of kicking and heading to a leather ball, is a prime example of how prejudice and in-out group social psychology comes to play. Maybe even more so. FIFA, the international football organization, has launched a campaign against racism. A recent article in the German Der Spiegel, however, has just demonstrated how “us against them” thinking leads to overgeneralizations and prejudice (the Spiegel article is now withdrawn, so see this).
In this way, the Neuron study hits the nail on it’s head by demonstrating that “even the brain” makes a difference between social group belonging. An entire field of social neuroscience is now emerging, even with an upcoming journal of its own! If one field in neuroscience is going to make the headlines, social neuroscience is bound to be it!