Neural basis of extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation

Neuroimage. 2010 Jul 15;51(4):1468-75. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.03.025. Epub 2010 Mar 17.


A central evolutionary challenge for social groups is uniting a heterogeneous set of individuals towards common goals. One means by which social groups form and endure is by endowing group members with extraordinary prosocial proclivities, such as ingroup love, towards other group members. Here we examined the neural basis of extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation in African-American and Caucasian-American individuals using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Our results indicate that empathy for ingroup members is neurally distinct from empathy for humankind, more generally. People showed greater response within anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral insula when observing the suffering of others, but African-American individuals additionally recruit medial prefrontal cortex when observing the suffering of members of their own social group. Moreover, neural activity within medial prefrontal cortex in response to pain expressed by ingroup relative to outgroup members predicted greater empathy and altruistic motivation for one's ingroup, suggesting that neurocognitive processes associated with self identity underlie extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation for members of one's own social group. Taken together, our findings reveal distinct neural mechanisms of empathy and altruistic motivation in an intergroup context and may serve as a foundation for future research investigating the neural bases of intergroup prosociality, more broadly construed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Altruism*
  • Behavior
  • Black or African American
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Pain / psychology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Regression Analysis
  • Software
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • White People
  • Young Adult