Empathy — the capacity to share and feel another’s emotions — is known to be mostly absent in people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and so, increasingly, scientists study this unique emotion to understand its genesis and effects. New research that directly explores how empathy arises between strangers comes to a surprising conclusion. The social stress we feel when we are with strangers, say the McGill University researchers, is what shuts down our ability to express empathy.

“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,” Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, a psychology professor and senior author of the study, stated in a press release.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity

Lack of empathy, in the case of people with autism, is well-known and well-discussed, yet the flipside is rarely mentioned. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, a psychologist, about 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive and responsive to the moods of other people. Aron refers to this as "sensory processing sensitivity," and she and her colleagues believe they can track the neural correlates of this not altogether rare trait. In one study, Aron discovered experiences of empathy in people with this trait showed stronger activation of brain regions involved in awareness, empathy, and self-other processing.

For the current study, Mogil and his colleagues compared the reactions of student volunteers to painful stimuli in various scenarios. His previous research demonstrated how two well-acquainted mice (cage mates) will experience more pain from a stimulus when they are together than if they experienced the same stimulus when alone. Mogil’s past research also indicated two unfamiliar mice do not experience a difference whether alone or together. So is the same true of humans?

To find out, the researchers designed a study where the student volunteers experienced pain under five separate circumstances: alone; with a friend; with a stranger; between two strangers given a stress-blocking drug; and between two strangers who had spent 15 minutes playing the video game Rock Band prior to testing. The pain stimulus remained consistent throughout all experiments: the students were asked to submerge an arm in ice-cold water.

While the students rated their pain at the same level whether they experienced it alone or sitting across from a stranger, their pain ratings actually increased when they were with 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,” Mogil said.

Next, the researchers gave the volunteers the drug metyrapone,which inhibits the "flight-or-fight" stress reaction, before the experiment. Among the students paired with a stranger, their stress levels were reduced after the drug and they felt pain as they would in the presence of friend.

To further test the stranger/social stress barrier to empathy, the volunteers who had been paired with strangers played Rock Band prior to the experiment. Even after only 15 minutes of playing together, their empathy for one another increased as measured by the ice water pain test. If both strangers played Rock Band separately before the experiment, no increase in empathy occurred.

“This research demonstrates that basic strategies to reduce social stress could start to move us from an empathy deficit to a surplus,” Mogil said. “In this case, creating empathy was as simple as spending 15 minutes together playing the video game Rock Band.”

The study’s findings raise some new questions about empathy including, Could simple shared activities be a way to increase empathy among autistic children? Still, Mogil finds it to be “pretty surprising that empathy appears to work exactly the same way in mice and people.”

Source: Martin J, Mogil J, et al. Reducing Social Stress Elicits Emotional Contagion of Pain in Mouse and Human Strangers. Current Biology. 2015.