The effects of racial group membership and cognitive load on empathy and helping behaviour

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Research suggests that people feel more empathy for racial in-group compared to racial outgroup members, and in some circumstances, are more likely to help racial in- than out-group members. Furthermore, there is evidence that cognitive load may also attenuate helping behavior. Research is yet to establish the influence of both racial group membership and cognitive load on empathy and helping, however. In this study, a sample of 104 women (52 Black and 52 White) completed either a Low or a High cognitive load task and then viewed video clips depicting racial in- and out-group members in distress. I measured participants' selfreported empathy, physiological activity, and willingness to help those in distress. The results did not show the expected racial bias in empathic responding, but rather, indicated heightened empathy (seen in both self-reported and physiological responses) for the Black target individual, regardless of participant race. Secondly, although cognitive load did not influence empathic responding, participants in the High Load condition were less likely to offer help than participants in the Low Load condition. Finally, correlation data suggest that racial group membership and cognitive load contributed to the associations between individual differences (i.e., in ethnic identification, motivations to respond without prejudice, and trait empathy), empathic responding, and helping behavior. Overall, the findings contribute to a growing literature on cross-racial empathy, and highlight the complex physiology underlying our empathy for others.