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Study: Stress Reduces Feelings of Empathy towards Strangers

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Posted January 21, 2015

A group of researchers based at the McGill University in Montreal, claim that our lack of empathy and compassion for people we don’t personally know may in part lie in our predisposition to experience stress when faced with strangers.

Stress can make us less empathetic towards strangers. Image credit: geralt via pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain.

Stress can make us less empathetic towards strangers. Image credit: geralt via pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain.

It’s been well established that stress hormones disrupt many of our higher functions, such as learning, memory and impulse control, but a new study, released in the journal Current Biology, suggests that stress also acts as an “off” button for empathy.

Earlier studies had surprised scientists in showing that mice feel empathy in a way that’s very similar to us, although the effect only held if the mice were cage partners.

To test if there’s a direct relationship between stress and empathy, Mogill et al. treated male mice with  metyrapone – a drug that blocks the action of the stress hormones called glucocorticoids – and observed their reactions to other mice who have been given a small dose of acetic acid to elicit a pain response.

As a result, the metyrapone-treated mice displayed emotional contagion, which is thought to be a primitive form of empathy.

“We found what in some sense might be thought of as the ‘secret’ to empathy; that is, what prevents it from occurring more often between strangers,” said Mogil. “The secret is, quite simply, stress, and in particular the social stress of being in close proximity with a stranger.”

Then the researchers moved on to human subjects and were able to demonstrate the same effect – when faced with a friend who was exposed to a painful stimulus (immersing one’s hand in ice water), volunteers reported feeling pain themselves, but as the same was rerun with strangers, emotional contagion ratings plummeted.

When the subjects were given glucocorticoid-blocking drugs, their level of empathy for strangers increased, showing a striking similarity with the rodent sample.

In the last part of the study, the team tried to find out what would it take to alter the “stranger” status in this setting.

They paired a subject with a stranger and asked them to play four Beatles songs in the video game “Rock Band”. Fifteen minutes later, stranger-induced stress levels decreased and all of the subjects displayed emotional contagion.

This suggests that our stress response might be an important factor in how we behave in social situations.

“It is quite intriguing indeed that this phenomenon appears to be identical in mice and humans,” said Mogil. “First, it supports the notion that mice are capable of more complex social phenomena than is commonly believed. Second, it suggests that human social phenomena might actually be simpler than commonly believed, at least in terms of their organizing principles.”

He claims that this is an emerging research theme in his lab, adding that “when it comes to social behaviour, ‘mice are people too’”.

The paper concludes with the following statement: “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.”

Sources: study abstract, bbc.com, dailymail.co.uk, psychcentral.com, wsj.com.

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