Study Shows We Can Learn To Empathize With Strangers

First Posted: Dec 25, 2015 01:56 AM EST

We can learn to emphasize with strangers through positive experiences that trigger a learning effect in the brain, according to a recent study.

Researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland examined whether empathy with strangers can be learned and how positive experiences with others potentially influence empathic brain responses.

During the study, researchers worked to measure brain activation in participants who showed a positive experience with a member of their own group or an unfamiliar group. Participants received instruction that they would receive painful shocks to the backs of their hands during a study test. However, the shock was also dependent on whether a member of their own group or another group would pay money in order to spare them pain. Meanwhile, the study authors recorded brain activation while participants observed pain in an individual in their own or another group before and after a shock experience.

At the start of the study, researchers found that pain in a member of the opposite group sparked a weaker brain activation in the participant than when he or she saw pain occurring to someone in their own group. Yet just a handful of positive experiences with someone from the stranger's group was enough to result in a significant increase in empathetic brain responses when pain occurred in an individual from an outside group.

"These results reveal that positive experiences with a stranger are transferred to other members of this group and increase the empathy for them," said study author and Psychologist and neuroscientist Grit Hein, via a news release.

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