How Easily Stress is Transferred Between People

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Men and women both showed equivalent empathy despite the stereotype.

Seeing another person under stress — even when you’re not involved in the situation — is enough to activate the stress hormone cortisol in your body as well, according to a new study.

In the study, conducted by German psychologists, people who were emotionally closest to each other, demonstrated the highest empathic stress response (Engert et al., 2014).

People even showed a significant empathic stress response when observing strangers under stress over a video link.

In the stress test, participants were given math tests and interviews which made 95% of participants stressed.

Those undergoing the tests were observed by both strangers and partners of those being stressed.

Overall, for 26% of the observers, the stress of the person they were watching was transmitted to them.

The study’s first author, Veronika Engert, was surprised by the findings:

“The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing.

There must be a transmission mechanism via which the target’s state can elicit a similar state in the observer down to the level of a hormonal stress response.”

Sometimes the observers watched over a video link, rather than through a two-way mirror.

This made little difference to the transmission of stress to the observer: the average transmission of stress only dropped from 30% to 24%.

Engert pointed out:

“This means that even television programmes depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers.

Stress has enormous contagion potential.”

There was no difference between the empathic stress response of men and women.

This flies in the face of women’s claims in repeated surveys to be more empathic than men.

Image credit: Giulia Bartra

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Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 14 May 2014

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License