Improved empathy through stress relief

Improved empathy through stress relief

Psychology: Natural stress in strangers causes less empathy compared to friends
16.01.2015

People who don't know each other are less sensitive than friends. The natural stress when contacting strangers is responsible for this. On the other hand, reducing stress leads to greater empathy, according to a study by McGill University in Montreal, which investigated this effect in both mice and humans. In order to reduce the stress among the foreign subjects, they let the researchers play a video game together - with success. After the game, the strangers previously felt significantly more empathy. The study was published in the renowned journal "Current Biology".

Stress reduction in strangers increases empathy. Canadian researchers led by Prof. Jeffrey Mogil from McGill University wanted to find out where lack of empathy arises and how this can be overcome. To do this, they first examined the behavior of mice. Because these often react strongly to pain that is inflicted on a member of the same species. However, this empathic reaction only occurs when the animals know each other. In strange mice, the animals behave as if they had not happened. To see if their response changed with reduced stress, the researchers gave the animals a small dose of the stress-relieving hormone blocker metyrapon. As it turned out, the animals reacted in a similar way to friends in strange mice. "This study identifies a reason for lack of empathy and answers the crucial question of how we manage to create empathy between strangers," said Mogil, senior author of the study, in a statement from the university.

Empathy can be increased by stress-relieving agents To find out whether this stress effect also applies to humans, they had students hold their hands in a bowl of ice water. They were first accompanied by a friend and then by a stranger who watched. The study participants felt the pain much more in the presence of a friend than a stranger, which the researchers also interpreted as a sign of empathy. At the same time, "the watching friends also reacted much more to the pain than the strangers". A stress reliever "significantly increased the empathy of the test subjects". This was true for the foreign spectators as well as for the participants who dipped their hands in the ice water. "It might seem like more pain in the presence of a friend is bad news, but it is indeed a sign of great empathy between people - they actually feel each other's pain," Mogil explains.

In order to achieve stress relief in a natural way, the researchers asked the test subjects to play the video game "Rock Band" for 15 minutes, in which music was played together. As it turned out, "a round of playing together before the tests gave the strangers similar results to the stress reliever". They were much more sensitive. Subjects who played the video game on their own did not react more empathetically. "It turns out that a shared experience, which is as superficial as playing a video game together, lets people switch from the" Fremengruppe "to the" Freundesgruppe "and generates a sensible level of empathy," explains Mogil. This research shows that basic strategies for social stress relief can move us from an empathy deficit to a surplus. "

Mechanisms of empathy seem to be the same in humans and mice. The study also shows that social stress when contacting strangers is responsible for the lack of empathy. "These results raise many fascinating questions because we know that deficits in empathy play a central role in various mental disorders and also in social conflicts on both a personal and a social level," explains Mogil. "It is also quite surprising that empathy apparently works the same way in mice and humans. ”(ag)

Image: Alexandra H. / pixelio.de

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