GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. Here's a question to start the show with. Why is it sometimes so hard to feel empathy for strangers?
JEFF MOGIL: Because you're stressed by them.
RAZ: You're stressed by them?
MOGIL: Yeah, and I think this is something that, you know, people don't think about a lot, but it's true.
RAZ: This is Jeff Mogil. He's a neuroscientist at McGill University in Canada.
MOGIL: I mean, for most of the history of our species, we were living in groups of, you know, a hundred people or so, we knew all of them and we didn't have empathy for strangers. But that was fine because we barely ever saw any strangers.
RAZ: Which is why today, if you take any two strangers and you put them in a room together, as Jeff did in a recent study...
MOGIL: You know, they weren't doing anything. They weren't competing in any way. But the very fact that you took two people and stuck them in a room and closed the door increased stress levels in both of them.
RAZ: It increased their heart rates and made their palms sweaty because...
JANE MCGONIGAL: You're trying to figure out if you can trust them. You're trying to see if you have anything in common. It's harder to relate them, to talk to them when you don't have any familiarity.
RAZ: This is Jane McGonigal. She's a videogame designer, and Jane told us about Jeff's study.
MCGONIGAL: A great new study that just came out a couple of weeks ago.
RAZ: And Jeff wanted to test out the hypothesis that being around strangers creates stress which decreases empathy.
MCGONIGAL: They tested this by using your perception of pain if you both plunge your hands into a freezing cold bucket of ice water.
MOGIL: For 30 seconds, and then they immediately take their hands out and they give a rating.
MCGONIGAL: And they would ask you to rate how painful it was and how much pain you thought the other person was feeling.
RAZ: And so Jeff gave each subject the pain test three times, once with a stranger in the room, both of them plunge their hands into the water; once alone, nobody else in the room; and then one more time, but this time with a friend and again, both of them plunge their hands into the water.
MOGIL: And what we found was if they were tested across from their friend, their pain was worse than when they were tested by themselves. But if people were tested across from a stranger, their pain was the same as when they were tested by themselves.
RAZ: How does that make sense? Like, you would think that if you're across from your friend, it would be OK because your friend is there and you would - it wouldn't be as painful 'cause you're both going through this thing, right?
MOGIL: You would, wouldn't you?
RAZ: Yeah, right.
MOGIL: That's the amazing thing about it. And the only explanation is that the pain from your friend is adding to your own pain just a little bit, making your experience of your own pain worse.
RAZ: This is a form of empathy called emotional contagion. And what Jeff found is that it happens between friends, but not between strangers.
MOGIL: The stranger's pain doesn't affect you at all.
RAZ: Wow. So we're really, like, wired not to care about strangers.
MOGIL: Yeah, I mean, yes (laughter).
RAZ: That sort of sucks.
MOGIL: (Laughter) I guess so.
RAZ: So the final question for Jeff Mogil and his researchers at McGill University was, could there be a way to reduce stress and create empathy between two strangers who had just met?
MCGONIGAL: These researchers found that you can essentially reduce the level of stress that you have interacting with a stranger to nothing by playing "Rock Band" for 15 minutes.
(SOUNDBITE OF ACDC SONG, "BACK IN BLACK")
RAZ: "Rock Band" - the videogame, of course, where you play plastic instruments.
MCGONIGAL: You play the drums. I play the guitar.
MOGIL: They were working together for the same score.
MCGONIGAL: It's a pretty cooperative game. And for 15 minutes, you play this game together. You will then test at the same level of stress as you would with one of your closest friends.
RAZ: So in just 15 minutes, if you played "Rock Band" with just a stranger, you would start to feel empathy towards them?
MOGIL: That's what we showed. So what was blocking the empathy effect in strangers was stress. And playing "Rock Band" together blocked the stress. Block the stress, the empathy can emerge.
MCGONIGAL: You would literally feel their pain more...
MCGONIGAL: ...If you had played a videogame with them.
RAZ: Jane McGonigal has actually done a lot of this kind of research herself.
MCGONIGAL: I'm a researcher of games and how they change how we think and act in our real lives.
RAZ: And Jane, like the other TED speakers on the show today, has wondered how play can make us better at other things in life, whether it can make us healthier, more creative, more social. And as we'll hear, play can mean a lot of things, like building a tree house or pulling off an elaborate prank or in Jane's case, playing video games.
MCGONIGAL: I don't know about you, I'm so sick of talking about the same things when it comes to games. All the things that we worry about - our kids aren't getting enough exercise or, oh, there's so much violence in popular media. I mean, these things are all true, but at the end of the day, how does it help us take advantage of the beneficial aspects of games? It doesn't.
RAZ: We'll hear more from Jane later in the show.
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