Study suggests stress stops us empathising with strangers

A study published in the journal Current Biology has suggested that stress could be blamed for blocking our empathy towards strangers.

The study looked at both mice and men under the influence of drugs which blocked stress responses. Mice given the drug were confronted with another, mouse – a stranger, who was in pain, and those given the stress blocker showed more empathy towards the mouse, more similar to what they would show towards a familiar mouse, than they would not on the drug.

Undergraduates were then given the same drug, and underwent a similar test. They had to rate the pain of a stranger who had their hand plunged into a bucket of ice for thirty seconds.

Like the mice, they tended to show more empathy when they were given the drug compared to a control group who were not. The results were also compared to participants rating the pain of a friend.

They not only tended to rate the pain as higher, but they also seemed to grimace more and touch their own hands in unconscious acts of sympathy.

This stress block on empathy was therefore found to be overcome by drugs, but also by ‘ice-breaking’ team work. When two strangers worked together on a co-operative video game, and then underwent the test, the empathy levels of the observer again rose.

The study author, Dr Jeffrey Mogil, a neuroscientist from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, said that “few people would realise that there is a stress response when you’re in a room with a person you don’t know,” and this stress can “veto” the empathy that we’d usually feel.

Ice-breakers are good at dismantling this stress, and thus increasing empathy. “By the time it came to the test, there was no longer any stress,” Dr Mogil said. “This suggests either that mice are more complicated than we think or that the principle underlying human social interactions is simpler than we think.”

It is possible then, that good stress management could help to increase our empathy, as we take control of our stress levels and reduce them.