July 6, 2015
Stress: an obstacle to empathy
Several studies show that people are less empathetic towards strangers than they are towards people from their entourage or relatives. A recent study led by the researcher Jeffrey Mogil at McGill University shows that stress caused by an interaction with a stranger could be responsible for this phenomenon.
The first part of the study was conducted in two groups of mice experiencing pain in front of a congener in order to induce empathy. Empathy was measured trough the level of pain felt by the animal. The first group of rodents received a drug called “metyrapone” a molecule that inhibits the production of cortisol (primary stress hormone), while the second group was exposed to a stressor. According to the results, the group that received the drug inhibiting stress hormone production was more empathetic toward their congeners’ pain compared to the group that was experimentally stressed. This suggests that cortisol inhibits empathy in rodents.
The second part of the experiment was conducted on human subjects and measured the response to others’ pain in different situations: with a friend, with a stranger or with a stranger who had received a dose of metyrapone. Results show that inhibiting stress hormone production might increase empathy for others’ pain.
In conclusion, stress related to an interaction with a stranger in either rodents or humans, might reduce empathy. Authors stipulate that this would be due to an evolutionary conservation matter, where one would try to save his own life if he/she feels like the situation is threatening. Stress hormones would therefore block empathy in order to save one’s own life. Studies on this subject are important because the lack of empathy is at the heart of some psychological disorders.