Study: It’s Harder Having Empathy for Strangers

Experiencing empathy — understanding other people and why they feel the way they do — is a key part of existing in society. Without it, it’s tough to understand other points of view, which can cause conflict, instead of cooperation. Most of us are able to feel empathy for our loved ones. But when it comes to strangers — on the Internet, say, or in traffic — most people have a tougher time empathizing. And it’s not because we’re all cold-hearted assholes: A new study published today in the journal Current Biology set out to determine why it is we have a tough time understanding the plights of strangers, and found that it all comes down to stress. Specifically, the stress of being around someone we don’t know at all.

Since pain is universally understood and easy to measure, many scientists use it as a stimulus in empathy studies. Senior study author Jeffrey Mogil, a psychology professor at McGill University, compared participants’ reactions to painful stimuli (don’t worry, just submerging their arms into ice-cold water, nothing graphic!) in different scenarios. They did it alone, with a friend, with a stranger, with a stranger and a stress-blocking drug, and with a stranger they had bonded with for 15 minutes over Rock Band (great choice).

They found that the pain scores stayed the same when participants were alone and with a stranger, but increased when they were with a friend. Mogil explained in a press release that this extra pain for someone we know is a sign of strong empathy: “They are indeed feeling each other’s pain,” he said. Results also showed that after just 15 minutes of video game icebreaking, strangers started to feel empathy for one another.”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.

While we can’t simply employ video games to solve most conflicts, the study makes it clear that finding simple ways to break the ice and find common ground between strangers can be a useful tool in boosting empathy.

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