Which increases compassion towards others

Social stress weakens empathy

Montreal (Canada) - The empathic sympathy for the pain of another is more pronounced towards friends and relatives than towards strangers. This applies to both humans and mice. American psychologists have now been able to show that the level of stress hormones has a decisive influence on this so-called emotional infection. According to the researchers in the journal "Current Biology", the empathy towards strangers is lower because their presence increases the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. They were able to increase compassion for a pain-sensitive stranger in mice and humans by using a drug that blocks the effects of stress hormones. A video game shared with the human subjects that relieved social stress had the same effect.

"We found out why empathy between strangers is so rare," says Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University in Montreal. “The reason is - quite simply - stress, especially social stress in the immediate vicinity of a stranger.” It was known from previous studies that the physical proximity of a strange conspecific raises the level of stress hormones. Therefore, Mogil and his colleagues investigated a possible connection between stress and empathy. In their animal experiments, they recorded the reaction of mice to pain inflicted on another mouse by injecting dilute acetic acid. If the observing animal had previously been treated with the stress hormone blocker Metyrapon, it showed increased empathy towards conspecifics from another cage. Conversely, the natural empathy for mice from their own cage decreased if the mouse was previously exposed to a stressful situation. Apparently, biochemical reactions triggered by stress suppress normal emotional contamination.

Tests with two male or two female students who were either friends or did not know each other provided surprisingly similar results. One person suffered pain from putting their hand in four-degree water. The other person assessed the level of pain using a point scale. In addition, a video camera recorded the subjects' facial expressions and gestures. The cortisol content was determined in saliva samples. The students rated a stranger's pain significantly higher if they had taken Metyrapon an hour earlier, which lowered cortisol levels. In addition, their facial and gestural reactions, which expressed compassion, were more pronounced. Finally, the researchers showed that the drug's empathy-enhancing effect could be replaced by the musical video game "Rock Band". Between two strangers, who were able to reduce their stress level by making virtual music together, in the subsequent pain test similarly high levels of empathy developed as after taking the stress hormone blocker.

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