Humans have a strong tendency and ability to connect with each other and to understand and share each other’s intentions and emotions.
At the same time intergroup interactions are often complicated by misunderstandings and a lack in empathy.
Recent findings from the neurosciences suggest that people understand other’s actions and intentions through motor resonance — the perception of another’s actions and sensory experiences produces brain activity very similar to what would be observed if we’d perform the same actions and make the same experiences ourselves.
Our research explores the circumstances and individual characteristics that foster motor resonance between members of different social groups. We discovered that neural resonance in the motor cortex, as measured by attenuation of the EEG mu-rhythm over sensorimotor areas, is constrained to the ingroup.
When people see videos of ethnic outgroup members moving their hands to reach for a cup, their motor cortex is less active than when they see others of their own ethnic background perform the same action (Gutsell & Inzlicht, 2010). This effect is moderated by levels of prejudice, so that the more prejudiced people are, the less they resonate with outgroups.
The sharing of basic emotion seems to be biased in a similar way. People show similar avoidance and sadness related brain activity, when observing sadness in ingroup members as when they feel sad themselves. In contrast, no such affective resonance is observed in response to outgroup members (Gutsell & Inzlicht, 2012). These findings suggest that an embodied understanding of others’ inner states may be limited to close others and without active effort may not be available for outgroups.
After having established the existence of an ingroup bias in motor resonance, we are now asking which factors and situations might facilitate neural resonance in an intergroup context. We take a motivational approach to motor resonance and ask whether increasing motivational relevance of the outgroup, for instance by putting people in an empathic mindset, or when outgroup members pose a potential threat, will lead to an increase in motor resonance and ultimately improve cross-group interactions.