Science proves that that you feel more empathy towards a family member than to a stranger

Generally speaking, the average person is far more likely to care about and be willing to make big sacrifices for someone in his own family as opposed to an outsider or even a close friend, a new study has found. But most people, if asked in person, would never actually admit this, suggesting that the moral dilemmas people face publicly differ from what actually goes on inside their heads.

While it may seem pretty straightforward, familial relationships, and particularly those that are biological in nature, almost always tend to take precedence over other types of relationships when it comes to the level of empathy that people feel towards others. If your mother or father faced a life-threatening diagnosis, for example, chances are you would be much more willing to donate one of your own vital organs in order to save their life than if it was an unknown stranger who faced a similar need.

Researchers from Aalto University in Finland decided to investigate this dichotomy in moral decision-making a little bit further, evaluating a group of 30 women as they watched various iterations of a film in which the lead characters faced a number of moral dilemmas. The research team altered the storylines to present the characters in one version of the film as biological sisters, while in another version the one sister was portrayed as having been adopted.

After watching the various versions of the film, the subjects were all asked to explain how the different scenarios made them feel, to which an overwhelming 90 percent said that it didn’t matter whether or not the female characters were biological sisters – nearly all of the study participants verbally claimed that they cared equally for all of the characters. But images procured from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans tell a much different story.

When the film viewers were told that the sisters portrayed were genetically related, researchers observed in their fMRIs major variances in brain activity, including in the insula, cingulate cortex, medial and lateral prefrontal cortex, superior temporal cortex, and superior parietal cortex. These areas of the brain govern things like morality, emotions, feelings, and decision-making.

“The impact on brain functions was amazingly high when we told about the difference in kinship between the sisters,” says Mareike Bacha-Trams, a postdoctoral researcher from Aalto University, regarding the findings.

If your sister and a homeless person were both drowning and you could only save one of them, which would you choose?

Perhaps the most interesting part of the research involved crisis situations in which participants were told that they could only choose to save one person: either someone who was really close to them or a complete stranger. Almost every participant indicated that he or she would choose family first, followed by a close friend, followed by the stranger. In fact, the brainwave response times in the participants became progressively more laggy the further away from one’s own family circle the crisis victim was, suggesting that a person’s moral preference is strongest towards his own bloodline, degrading progressively the more detached another person gets from this biological connection.

No matter how you look at it, family is the strongest bond there is, and the science proves this. When one encounters a personal crisis that requires interpersonal support, the best resource he has is family.

“The study is of significance in the field of social neuroscience when we want to know how people observe interactions between two people with a close relationship,” adds Professor Iiro Jääskeläinen, another of the study’s researchers. “This may also give rise for debate even in situations where scandals related to nepotism emerge in societal decision-making.”

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