What makes people feel empathy for each other? A study from McGill University finds that shared experiences can transform people from un-empathetic strangers to friends. Empathy is hampered by the stress of being around strangers. The new study finds that people who spend a short period of time together and then undergo a painful experience demonstrate elevated levels of empathy for each other. The findings could have applications for treating disorders characterized by a lack of empathy.

For the study, the researchers observed the reactions of undergraduate students exposed to a painful stimulus. Participants were asked to put their arm in ice water in various situations: alone, with a friend, or with a stranger. To test the empathetic bond between strangers, some pairs of strangers were exposed to the painful stimulus while taking stress-blocking drugs. Some pairs of strangers first played the video game Rock Band together for 15 minutes before exposure to the ice water. The undergraduates rated the pain they experienced while their arm was submerged in ice water.

The undergraduates reported feeling comparable levels of pain when they were alone and when they were with a stranger. When students faced the ice water at the same time as a friend, they rated the experience as more painful. More pain might seem bad, but in this case, it is a sign of strong empathy between friends.

Pairs of strangers who played Rock Band together for 15 minutes and then submerged their arms in ice water demonstrated increased levels of empathy.

Psychology professor and senior study author Jeffrey Mogil says of the findings, “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. This research demonstrates that the basic strategies to reduce social stress could start to move us from an empathy deficit to a surplus.”

The findings may have applications for disorders like autism, a disorder that is thought to limit empathetic abilities.

This research is published in Current Biology.

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