Published:  2014-12

Empathy and helping : effects of racial group membership and cognitive load

Authors:  Landi Meiring, Melike M. Fourie, Sivenesi Subramoney, Kevin G. F. Thomas, Jean Decety

Tags:  Cognitive load, Empathy, Helping behaviour, Racial group membership

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Previous research suggests that (a) racial group membership attenuates empathy, and subsequent prosocial helping behaviour, towards out-group members, and (b) helping behaviour is modified by the potential helperâ??s pool of cognitive resources. It remains unclear, however, how cognitive load influences empathy and helping towards racial in- versus out-group members. We investigated this question using a sample of 30 White females. After completing either a high or a low cognitive-load task, participants viewed video clips depicting distressed White or Black females. We examined cardiovascular responses, self-reported empathic responses, and helping behaviour in response to the clips. We found no effect of racial group membership on empathic responding or on helping behaviour across cognitive-load conditions. However, results suggested that high cognitive load attenuates empathic responding, leading to decreased helping behaviour towards both racial in- and out-group members. Interestingly, a high internal motivation to respond without prejudice was associated with increased helping towards out-group members, but only under conditions of low cognitive load.