Bridging the Empathy Gap 15 Minutes at a Time

empathy gap

“Empathy” has become something of a political buzzword in recent years. President Barack Obama has referred to America’s “empathy defecit” as being a bigger problem than its financial one. More recently, Bill and Melinda Gates told class of 2014 Stanford graduates that “feeling the other” should be a top priority.

Fortunately, a recent study, published in the journal Current Biology, suggests that while an empathy gap between strangers is a natural phenomenon, creating it is shockingly easy. The study had participants plunge their arms in ice-cold water—either alone or with a stranger—and rate their pain. The researchers found that the presence of a stranger made no difference in how participants rated their pain. However, when participants put their arms into the ice-cold water with a friend, they rated their pain as being much worse. Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, who led the study, concluded that higher pain ratings were the result of empathy.

“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,” explained Dr. Mogil.

While the stress of being in close proximity to a stranger precluded the inflated pain ratings that occurred amongst friends in the first experiment, a separate experiment, in which participants were given a drug that blocks the hormonal stress response, showed that when so-called “stranger danger” was relieved, empathy between friends and strangers was the same.

Dr. Mogil believes that the study hones in on the secret of what it is that mires the development of empathy between strangers.

“The secret is—quite simply—stress, and in particular the social stress of being in close proximity with a stranger,” said Dr. Mogil.

The identification of stress, more specifically, fear of strangers, as an impediment to empathy raises questions about contemporary attitudes towards those living in poverty, particularly immigrants. Despite the demonstrable economic benefits of migration, strong and outspoken pockets of xenophobic resistance to immigration remain active across the world. In many cases, resistance to immigration is driven by fear and distrust.

While defrosting the layers of unfamiliarity and skepticism between human beings might seem like a tall task, Dr. Mogil’s research team identified a surprisingly simple solution: participants played video games. Researchers observed as strangers played the video game Rock Band with each other for 15 minutes, and found that the shared experience was enough to reduce the empathy-impeding stress response.

“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. Mogil said.

Dr. Mogil said that the research demonstrates the potential of instituting basic strategies to reduce social stress in order to illicit greater empathy.

While using 15 minutes of Rock Band is certainly not a blanket solution to the world’s myriad of ills, capitalizing on the interconnectedness of the modern world to create shared experiences across cultures and nationalities could play an important role in bridging the empathy gap.

– Parker Carroll

Sources: The Guardian,  Huffington Post,  Huffington Post,  Spring

Photo: Sojo