Want to increase empathy towards strangers? Take a chill pill

Our lack of empathy for strangers compared to friends could be due to higher levels of stress at being around someone unfamiliar, according to a new study. The research team showed that stress-blocking drugs increased empathy for strangers in both mice and undergraduates. Playing the video game Rock Band with the stranger had a similar effect of increasing empathy (this was tested in undergraduates only).

This study specifically studied emotional contagion, your response to seeing someone else in pain. When you see a friend in pain, you have a greater pain response yourself compared to if you are watching a stranger: greater empathy for those you know. This occurs in both mice and humans.

The research team behind this study wondered if this reduced empathy for strangers was due to the stress of a social interaction with an unfamiliar person or mouse. As they suspected, when the mice were given drugs that blocked stress receptors, they had a greater pain response when seeing stranger mice in pain: greater emotional contagion or empathy.

This same result was found in undergraduates, suggesting a common mechanism across these (quite different) populations. Stress-reducing drugs increased empathetic pain response in undergraduates when they saw strangers put their hands in ice cold water compared to without the drugs. This indicates that stress-related biochemical changes affected this higher-level empathic response.

Thankfully, greater empathy was not only achieved through the use of drugs, but also occurred when the (human) strangers played Rock Band together before the painful experience. The researchers suggest that this is because the social bonding of the video game reduces the stress of social interaction with a new person.

As well as showing how empathy could be modulated by stress, specifically social stress, this study shows a common mechanism across mice and humans, suggesting that empathy in mice could be fairly similar to empathy in humans. Conversely, it also maybe suggests that the human empathy response is simpler than thought, reliant (in part) on stress-related biochemical changes.



L. J. Martin, G. Hathaway, K. Isbester, S. Mirali, E.L. Acland, N. Niederstrasser, P.M. Slepian, Z. Trost, J.A. Bartz, R.M. Sapolsky, W.F. Sternberg, D.J. Levitin, J.S. Mogil. Reducing Social Stress Elicits Emotional Contagion of Pain in Mouse and Human Strangers. Current Biology, 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.028


Image credit: Flickr/ Sean MacEntee

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