Stress Prevents Us From Feeling Empathy For Strangers

Empathy4This new study found that stress prevents us from feeling empathy for people we don’t know, and that alleviating stress opens us up for feeling that empathy:

Reducing Social Stress Elicits Emotional Contagion of Pain in Mouse and Human Strangers, Current Biology, Online 15 January 2015

Empathy for another’s physical pain has been demonstrated in humans [ 1 ] and mice [ 2 ]; in both species, empathy is stronger between familiars. Stress levels in stranger dyads are higher than in cagemate dyads or isolated mice [ 2, 3 ], suggesting that stress might be responsible for the absence of empathy for the pain of strangers. We show here that blockade of glucocorticoid synthesis or receptors for adrenal stress hormones elicits the expression of emotional contagion (a form of empathy) in strangers of both species. Mice and undergraduates were tested for sensitivity to noxious stimulation alone and/or together (dyads). In familiar, but not stranger, pairs, dyadic testing was associated with increased pain behaviors or ratings compared to isolated testing. Pharmacological blockade of glucocorticoid synthesis or glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid receptors enabled the expression of emotional contagion of pain in mouse and human stranger dyads, as did a shared gaming experience (the video game Rock Band) in human strangers. Our results demonstrate that emotional contagion is prevented, in an evolutionarily conserved manner, by the stress of a social interaction with an unfamiliar conspecific and can be evoked by blocking the endocrine stress response.

Some things I’ve learned:

  • “The impact of stress on empathy appeared to be identical in mice and humans. … Mice are either more complicated than we think or the principle underlying human social interactions is simpler than we think.” – Dr Jeffrey Mogil, study author and neuroscientist from McGill University 1
  • Another name for a stranger is an “unfamiliar conspecific.”
  • “Playing a fun video game”1 with a stranger can reduce stress as much as drugs, at least in undergraduates.

1Stress Is ‘Barrier To Feeling Empathy For Strangers’, BBC, 15 January 2015

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