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Brain Judges Actions of People We Dislike, Differently: Study

Update Date: Oct 08, 2012 09:34 AM EDT

A new study suggests that whether we like a person or not, affects the way we view their actions. This might explain why we often let go of mistakes made by our loved ones, when that same mistake, done by someone we dislike may seem graver to us?

The new research from the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC says that mostly, when we watch someone performing some action, our brain creates a "mirroring" effect, which means that the parts of our brain, responsible for motor skills are activated by watching someone else in action.

However, the current study shows that our affiliation to the person in action effects our brain activity related to motor actions and lead to "differential processing."  For example, when we see a person we dislike, we may perceive him/her moving more slowly than they actually are, Medical Xpress reported.  

"We address the basic question of whether social factors influence our perception of simple actions," says Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, an assistant professor with the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC and the Division of Occupational Science.

"These results indicate that an abstract sense of group membership, and not only differences in physical appearance, can affect basic sensory-motor processing."

Previous studies have shown that race or physical similarity can influence brain processes, and it's possible we empathize more with people who look like us.

The study included controlled factors such as race, age and gender. For the study, the researchers recruited Jewish male participants. The participants were presented with a few people performing some action.  While half of those people were presented as neo-Nazis, the rest half were presented as friendly and open-minded people.

The findings of the study revealed that while participants watched people presents as neo-Nazis in action (whom they disliked) they had a different part of their brain activated when compared to when they were watching the "friendly" people.

The part of their brain that was otherwise activated in "mirroring" - the right ventral premotor cortex - had a different pattern of activity for the disliked individuals as compared to the liked individuals, the findings revealed.

Also, the effect was seen only when the other person was seen moving by the participant. The effect was not seen when the participant was shown a still picture of the other person, even if they were liked or disliked by the participant.

"Even something as basic as how we process visual stimuli of a movement is modulated by social factors, such as our interpersonal relationships and social group membership," says Mona Sobhani, lead author of the paper and a graduate student in neuroscience at USC. "These findings lend important support for the notion that social factors influence our perceptual processing." Glenn R. Fox and Jonas Kaplan of the Brain and Creativity Insitute at USC were co-authors of the paper.

The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

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