Stress lowers empathy for strangers

Stress may be the main reason we can have a hard time being sympathetic to strangers.

According to a new study, published in the journal Current Biology, a team of Canadian and American researchers determined that in both mice and humans empathy is stronger between those that recognize each other, and barely noticeable between strangers. They also recognized that for both mice and humans, stress levels rise in the presence of strangers.

For the study, the researchers tested both mice and students with a stress-blocking drug, and monitored their response to seeing another in pain. Mice that had the drug were more compassionate and empathetic to an unfamiliar mouse, than those without the drug. Students were asked to watch a stranger put their hand in a bucket and rate the level of pain. Those who took the drug rated higher levels of pain, had more pained facial expressions and even touched their own hands, compared to those without the drug.

Curious about how stress affects people when they meet someone new, the researchers had another group of unfamiliar students play a fun video game as an “ice breaker” before testing. After working together on the game, there was no longer stress between the strangers. Researchers say this suggests that while stress can block empathy, icebreakers are an effective way to reduce stress levels when meeting new people.