Stress Is Making You Less Empathetic

stressed woman at desk

When you’re under the gun at home or at work, it can be hard to find time for others’ feelings. But don’t be so hard on yourself; there might be a biological reason for your response. New research published this week has found that stress hormones play a pivotal role in how empathetic we are and has revealed that the mechanism isn’t unique to humans.

Research has been done showing that both mice and humans display empathy toward others. While we’ve known for a long time that our feelings are influenced by the emotions of those around us, the case might seem less obvious of for mice. But past research has revealed that mice appear to experience pain more intensely when a familiar partner is also experiencing pain.

We all feel a certain degree of stress in new situations, especially when strangers are present. Mice feel this stress as well. Past researchers had found that the empathetic response to another mouse’s pain didn’t extend to strangers and the current research team wondered if the stress of being around strangers had anything to do with it.

To test this, they repeated previous empathy experiments with familiar partners and strangers. Mice were exposed to different levels of pain in the presence of friends or strangers and again seemed to experience more intense pain only in the presence of friends. The researchers then gave the mice a compound that blocked their internal receptors for stress hormones and repeated the experiments. With their stress response blocked, mice now showed the same pain intensity increase for strangers as they did for familiar mice. General stress also decreased empathy. When the mice were stressed out by being put in restraints for 30 minutes, they no longer responded to familiar mice with increased pain.

The team wondered how these results might apply to humans. They brought in a group of participants and paired them either with a friend they knew or a complete stranger. In isolation, the participants put their hands in very cold water for 30 seconds and rated how painful the experience was. Researchers then brought a friend or stranger into the room who either watched the participant put their hand in cold water or who also put their hand in cold water at the same time. The participants then rated their pain again. As with the mice, people who experienced pain in the presence of others found the pain more intense, but only when the other person was a friend.

Each participant was then given either a drug that blocked stress hormones or a placebo drug that did nothing. The cold water test was repeated, but this time only with strangers. The participants given the real drug experienced significantly more intense pain than those given the placebo. Samples of their saliva showed they also had less stress hormone circulating in their blood than those who got the placebo.

Recognizing that taking a drug before meeting a stranger is an impractical way of improving empathy, the research team wondered if there was a better way to decrease stress levels. They had their participants play video game either alone or cooperatively with a stranger as an icebreaker. When they repeated the cold water experiment, they found that those who had played a game with the stranger before were more empathetic. They concluded that stress plays a real role in decreasing how empathetic people are toward each other and that playing some sort of icebreaking game to lower stress levels can increase a person’s empathy toward the other.