We find it easier to empathise with people who are socially and emotionally close to us, of course we do. Research has even shown how the sight of a loved one in pain triggers a kind of simulation of their agony in the pain network of our own brain. A new study builds on this, showing that superficial feelings of connectedness with a stranger are enough to lead to a mirroring of their emotions and even their heart rate.
In two studies, David Cwir and his collaborators had dozens of undergrads reveal their cultural interests and favourite places to visit. One to ten weeks later, for what they thought was a completely separate study, these same undergrads took part in what was described to them either as a personality and cognition experiment (study one) or an experiment on the physiological effects of exercise (study two).
The general format was the same for both studies: each participant was paired with another student who, unbeknown to them, was an accomplice working for the researchers. The proceedings kicked off casually enough with an experimenter asking the participant and the other student about themselves. Using the survey answers garnered weeks earlier, the researchers contrived things craftily so that the other student either did or didn’t share the majority of the participant’s own interests. This set-up was designed to provoke feelings of social connectedness with the other student. Based on later questions about how close they felt to the other student and how much they wanted to know them, the manipulation worked.
In the first study, the get-to-know you interview stage was followed by a random task allocation – either the participant would have to give a short presentation or the other student would. In truth, this was fixed and the other student had to do the talk. She acted out the process of preparing to give the talk, and showed every sign of being very stressed and anxious about it. The participants, meanwhile, answered a personality questionnaire, buried in which were questions about their current mood and emotions. The key finding here was that participants who’d been led to feel socially connected to their partner, reported mirroring her emotions – they felt more stressed than the participants who hadn’t been prompted to feel socially connected. Empathy, it seems, had been stirred between strangers by the slightest of bonds.
The procedure was similar for the second study, but this time instead of preparing for a presentation, the other student was allocated the task of running on the spot vigorously for three minutes. This time, the sight of their partner running apparently caused the socially connected participants to experience increased heart rate and blood pressure, as compared with the participants who hadn’t been prompted to feel socially connected. A weak bond had led the strangers’ hearts to beat together.
‘The present research suggests that psychologically, the self and the other can blur,’ the researchers said. ‘Even minimally instantiated social relationships can lead people to experience common psychological and physiological states. If brief social ties can have such effects, the degree to which individuals’ psychological experiences arise in tandem with the psychological experiences of others may be more pervasive than now understood.’
Cwir, D., Carr, P., Walton, G., and Spencer, S. (2011). Your heart makes my heart move: Cues of social connectedness cause shared emotions and physiological states among strangers. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.01.009 [pdf via author website]