Why Having Empathy with Strangers is Difficult


The stress of being around strangers puts a damper on your ability to express empathy, says a new study from McGill University.

Empathy is the capacity to share and feel another’s emotions. Increasingly it is being studied by scientists due to its known role in psychological disorders, like Autism Spectrum Disorder and psychopathy.

“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,” said psychology professor Jeffrey Mogil, senior author. “In this case, creating empathy was as simple as spending 15 minutes together playing the video game Rock Band®.”

Pain and Empathy

Pain is frequently used as a stimulus in empathy research, because it is universally understood and easy to measure. Earlier research by Mogil and other scientists has used the approach to show that aptitude for empathy is apparent even in lower mammals, like mice.

For this study, the team compared the reactions of volunteers to painful stimuli in various scenarios. They were observed alone, with a friend, with a stranger, with two strangers given a stress-blocking drug, and with two strangers who had spent 15 minutes playing the video game Rock Band® prior to testing.

The participants were told to submerge their arm in ice-cold water and rate their pain.

Pain scores stayed the same whether they experienced the pain alone or sitting across from a stranger. But when these students put their arms in ice water alongside a friend, the pain actually increased.


“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 Mogil.

Stressed Out Strangers Lack Empathy

Mogil’s previous research has shown that two mice do not feel empathy when they are unknown to one another. It has also shown that if two mice are familiar with one another, as in being cage mates, they will feel more pain from a stimulus than they do when given the same painful experience alone.

The latest study is the first to demonstrate the same barrier to empathy in the presence of strangers among humans. The researchers then looked into what stopped empathy between strangers and found the same cause in both humans and mice.

It was the stress of being near a stranger.

When researchers gave mice and humans the drug metyrapone, a compound which prevents the “flight-or-fight” stress reaction, prior to the experiment, both students and mice evidenced empathy for the stranger.

To further test this social stress empathy barrier between strangers, student participants paired with strangers were given the opportunity to play Rock Band® prior to the experiment.

After only 15 minutes of playing Rock Band® together, these strangers showed empathy toward one another when they experienced the pain from exposure to ice water. But playing the game alone did nothing to boost empathy between strangers.

“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,” said Mogil. “This research demonstrates that basic strategies to reduce social stress could start to move us from an empathy deficit to a surplus.”

“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,” said Mogil. “It’s also pretty surprising that empathy appears to work exactly the same way in mice and people.”

For More Information:

Loren J. Martin, Georgia Hathaway, Kelsey Isbester, Sara Mirali, Erinn L. Acland, Nils Niederstrasser, Peter M. Slepian, Zina Trost, Jennifer A. Bartz, Robert M. Sapolsky, Wendy F. Sternberg, Daniel J. Levitin, Jeffrey S. Mogil.
Reducing Social Stress Elicits Emotional Contagion of Pain in Mouse and Human Strangers.
Current Biology, 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.028

Romero, T., Konno, A., and Hasegawa, T.
Familiarity bias and physiological responses in contagious yawning by dogs support link to empathy.
PLoS ONE. 2013; 8: e71365

Last Updated on November 12, 2022