Having just a few things in common strengthens empathy, even among strangers, according to two experiments carried out by Stanford psychologists.  The studies reveal that a person is capable of taking on the feelings and physical reactions of a virtual stranger who is placed in an uncomfortable situation.

“When people have longstanding relationships, they have shared experiences and overlapping social networks,” said Dr. Greg Walton, an assistant professor of psychology. Having a few things in common, in effect, seemed to increase empathy amongst a group of strangers.

“But we found that even when you strip those things away, and create a sense of social connection in a lab with a five-minute conversation, that’s sufficient to build a relationship where you care about someone.”

For the first experiment, 70 women were given a questionnaire and asked to list their birthplace and a few of their favorite things, such as movies, books, musicians and travel destinations.

Each woman was later introduced to a confederate, or insider – a person working for the researchers but pretending to be a fellow test subject. The confederate would talk with a participant and pretend to have a few things in common with her but nothing in common with the others.

Some of the women were made to feel like they just met someone who shared an interest in something rare or unusual, such as an obscure author or an underground rock band.

The women were told that the confederate was supposed to memorize and give a speech on neurophysiology to a panel of judges.  As the test subjects looked on, the confederate acted nervous, saying things like “I’m really bad at giving speeches” and asking if she would be evaluated on her performance.

“We had the confederate act really freaked out,” said lead author David Cwir, a doctoral candidate at the University of Waterloo.

While the women watched the confederate struggle, they answered questionnaires designed to gauge how stressed they were feeling at that moment.

The participants who believed they shared three things in common with the insider and felt a sense of connection with her reported a 28 percent increase in stress over the individuals who shared nothing in common with the imposter.

“The test subjects literally incorporated the feelings of the confederate into their own feelings,” Cwir said. “Just by finding out they shared a few things in common was enough to create this psychological and emotional merging.”

The second experiment was staged in a similar manner, but included men as well as women (45 participants in all). Instead of preparing a stressful speech, however, the confederate ran in place for three minutes as the test subjects sat in a chair and watched.

When the three minutes were over, and the confederate was sweaty and tired, the volunteers had their own vital signs measured as well. Those who believed they shared some common interests with the confederate had more than a 5 percent increase in their own heart rates; and their blood pressure also increased almost 9 percent from the beginning of the study.

Among those who felt no connection to the confederate, their heart rates basically stayed the same and their blood pressure only rose about 4 percent.

“It is surprising that we found these reactions happening between strangers,” said Priyanka Carr, a doctoral candidate at Stanford who conducted the second experiment.

“But it shows that we’re built to connect with other people. Our selves are not isolated from everyone around us. We’re meant to have relationships, to feel what our partners feel.”

The findings will appear in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Source:  Stanford University