When stress rises, our ability to express empathy suffers

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  • Updated: Jan 17, 2015 18:33 IST

Our ability to express empathy -- understanding or vicariously experiencing others' feelings -- kicks into action when we get comfortable enough with the strangers in our vicinity, according to a new study.

It doesn't take much to make us comfortable: In fact, spending just 15 minutes playing a video game together or taking a stress-blocking drug could be enough to do the trick, say researchers from McGill University in Canada.

Like other studies centered on empathy, the team used physical pain as a means to solicit the feeling on the basis that everyone understands pain and that it's easy to measure in a laboratory setting.

In this particular study, which was published in the journal Current Biology, undergraduate participants were asked to submerge their arm in ice-cold water in the presence of a friend, in the presence of a stranger and all alone.
In one scenario, the team administered a stress-blocking drug to two strangers before the experiment and in another they asked two strangers to spend 15 minutes playing the video game "Rock Band" before plunging their arms into icy water.

The students, who were asked to rate their pain in all scenarios, reported the most pain after enduring the icy water in the presence of a friend.

"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," said senior author Jeffrey Mogil, a psychology professor at McGill.

At this point, those who were considered friends included the participants who had taken the stress-blocking drug and those who had played the video game together.

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

Indeed, playing Rock Band by themselves created no empathy between strangers.

Dr. Mogil has performed similar experiments on mice leading to the same conclusion: They feel no empathy when unfamiliar with one another, yet cage-mates feel more pain if they undergo the experience together than if they go it alone.

To discern empathy in the mice, the research team administered the same stress-blocking drug as they did to the humans, which is called metyrapone and hinders the instinctive fight or flight response.

"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," says Mogil. "It's also pretty surprising that empathy appears to work exactly the same way in mice and people."

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