For many people, their religion is like a badge of social identity. You feel an affinity with people who share a religion – not surprising given that you will share many cultural and social touch points.
But will you feel their pain? If shown a picture of a Christian grimacing, will you mentally flinch? What about an atheist
Siyuan Huang & Shihui Han at Peking University, Beijing, strapped electrodes to the heads of a bunch of Christians and atheists to see how they reacted to pictures of people – Christians and atheists – in pain. To keep it balanced, they used the images of the same 10 models for both Christians and atheists. They just swapped the symbols hung round their necks for some participants.
What they found was that both Christians and atheists had an emotional reaction to the images of people in pain – but that, in both groups, the reaction was stronger for images of people from their own group.
So that’s interesting enough, but there’s a twist.
They measured the reaction at different time points. That’s what’s shown in the graph below. P2, N2 and P3 represent the magnitude of the response at different intervals – P3 is about 0.4 seconds after P2.
You can see that, at P2 and N2, Christians and atheists are quite similar. They have a response, but the response is greater to the ‘in-group’ – atheists respond more strongly to the images of atheists in pain, and Christians more strongly to the images of Christians in pain.
At P3 it’s quite difference. At this time point, the Christian response to atheists images virtually disappears. For atheists, remarkably, the response to christian images is as strong as the response to atheist images.
Huang and Han reckon that this is because the early responses are purely instinctive. The later response occurs after some mental and evaluation and appraisal. It reflects that the responder is applying some judgment beyond the instinctive.
Sounds like a gold star for atheists, right? I mean, instinctively they empathize less with Christians but at least after a moments reflection they share their pain.
But don’t forget that this study was done in China. In China, Christians are a decided minority whereas atheists – at least in terms of affiliation – are in the majority.
So maybe what we’re seeing here is simply that people from minority groups have a stronger in-group identity. That’s been shown in other studies – minorities tend to stick together. There’s one easy way to check this, of course, and that’s to do a similar study in a country where atheists are a minority.
But the take home from this, I think, is to be aware of just how powerful religious identity is as a component of our social identity.
Huang, S., & Han, S. (2014). Shared beliefs enhance shared feelings: Religious/irreligious identifications modulate empathic neural responses Social Neuroscience, 1-11 DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2014.934396