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The Surprising Reason That Empathising With Strangers Can Be Hard

The Surprising Reason That Empathising With Strangers Can Be Hard post image

Why it is hard to empathise with strangers.

Stress from the presence of strangers reduces people’s ability to empathise, a new study finds.

However, just 15 minutes of playing a video game together is enough to overcome this barrier and allow strangers to empathise with each other.

Professor Jeffrey Mogil, who led the study, said:

“President Barack Obama has described an ’empathy deficit’ that fuels misunderstanding, divisions, and conflict.

This research identifies a reason for the empathy gap and answers the vital question of how do we create empathy between strangers.

In this case, creating empathy was as simple as spending 15 minutes together playing the video game Rock Band®.”

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, had people submerging their arm in ice-cold water either alone or with a stranger (Martin et al., 2015).

The presence or absence of a stranger also plunging their arm in to the water made no difference to how they rated the pain.

But, when they put their arms in the ice-cold water alongside a friend, their rating of the pain became much worse.

Professor Mogil explained:

“It would seem like more pain in the presence of a friend would be bad news, but it’s in fact a sign that there is strong empathy between individuals — they are indeed feeling each other’s pain.”

To demonstrate the link between stress and empathy, in another experiment people were given a drug called metyrapone, which blocks the hormonal stress reaction.

With this drug blocking their ‘fight-or-flight’ response, people putting their arm into the ice-cold water felt empathy for the stranger as well as their friend.

These results were replicated in mice: they also feel more pain when they are with a ‘cage mate’ than if it is just another mouse they don’t know.

But, with a drug blocking their stress response, like humans, mice empathise with friend and stranger alike.

Breaking the ice

In a third study, the researchers had people play the video game Rock Band® with a stranger for 15 minutes.

This was enough to reduce the stress response and allow people to experience empathy with a stranger when they plunged their arms into the cold water together.

Professor Mogil said:

“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.

This research demonstrates that basic strategies to reduce social stress could start to move us from an empathy deficit to a surplus.

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.”

Image credit: Sean MacEntee

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