MONTREAL (dpa) – A reason that people show less empathy towards strangers than friends or acquaintances is the “social stress” we feel around someone we don’t know. Reducing that stress boosts empathy, according to a new study.
Earlier research demonstrated this phenomenon in mice, which reacted with greater empathy when pain was inflicted on cage mates than on unfamiliar mice.
Given an injection of the stress hormone-blocker metyrapone, however, they reacted to the pain of unfamiliar mice as they would to that of cage mates.
Whereas when they were put under stress, they showed less empathy towards suffering acquaintances.
In the new study, led by Jeffrey Mogil, a psychology professor and head of the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University in Montreal, university students were paired with either a friend or stranger and asked to rate the pain when the partner submerged an arm in ice-cold water.
Their reactions – with and without metyrapone – matched those of the mice. Asked to dip their own arm in the water, they rated the pain higher when with a friend – this, too, a sign of empathy, Mogil said.
In reducing stress and boosting empathy, the researchers found that playing 15 minutes of the video game Rock Band together before the tests worked just as well as the drug for the students.
“It turns out that even a shared experience that is as superficial as playing a video game together can move people from the ‘stranger zone’ to the ‘friend zone’ and generate meaningful levels of empathy,” Mogil said.
“These findings raise many fascinating questions because we know failures in empathy are central to various psychological disorders and even social conflicts at both the personal and societal level.
“It’s also pretty surprising that empathy appears to work exactly the same way in mice and people.”
The study was published in the US-based journal Current Biology.