Assistant professor Loren Martin

In praise of bonding

Suzanne Bowness

Have you ever been in a stressful situation with a group of strangers, such as a long transit delay, and felt annoyed by your fellow travelers even though they were in the exact same predicament? Next time, try starting up a conversation. Sure, it may be awkward at first, but getting to know each other can actually increase your concern for others.

That’s the underlying message of a study published in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology, where U of T Mississauga assistant professor of psychology Loren Martin reveals that both people and mice feel greater empathy for someone they’ve bonded with rather than someone who is a complete stranger.

When Martin and his team at McGill University (the research was part of his postdoctoral project) undertook this research, his goal was to understand how stress influenced empathy in mice. Since mice are very territorial, the stress of unfamiliarity prevents them from showing empathy towards mice that are strangers to them. Martin wanted to see if empathy, called “emotional engagement” in the paper, could be revealed by blocking these stress axes in the mice. So he conducted an experiment where a mouse was given a stomach ache alongside another mouse (each mouse was first given a stomach ache on its own to determine a baseline response).

When the fellow mouse was a stranger from a different cage, the primary mouse showed the same or less discomfort. But when the fellow mouse was from the same cage, a less stressful partner because it was already familiar, the primary mouse showed more pain, which reveals empathy.

After testing the mice, Martin performed a similar experiment with McGill undergraduates. Students were asked to hold their hands under uncomfortably cold water for a minute, and report on their discomfort levels. When they did the experiment alongside a friend (who they were asked to bring to the study), they reported higher pain levels than when they were alone or with a stranger. Again, the students were first tested on their own to assess a baseline for their discomfort.

Interestingly, the study also shows that the partner doesn’t need to be overly familiar for empathy to come into play.  In the next phase of the undergraduate experiment, students were asked first to play the interactive video game “Rock Band” collaboratively with a partner who had formerly been a stranger. After only 15 to 20 minutes of play, when the experiment with the cold water was repeated, the newfound partners showed the same empathy as they would for a friend. Martin says the game’s interactivity was important—if strangers were simply sitting in a room together they did not demonstrate the same changes.

Besides the finding that even a short collaboration could affect the empathy reading, Martin says he was also surprised that the behavior exhibited by the mice was so closely mirrored in the undergraduates. “The mouse part we thought was going to work. The people part was a little bit of a long shot, because things like empathy and social behaviors are thought to be a little bit more complex in humans,” says Martin. The result suggests a more primitive root for empathy, a potential that Martin plans to further explore by creating an empathy map for the mouse brain to see if the areas are similar to those already identified in humans.

On the human side, Martin says these findings confirm the value of what some companies are already doing with team-building exercise and corporate retreats designed for employees to bond and overcome their stress around strangers.  “If people are just a little bit stressed by someone that they don't know, they're not going to have empathy towards that person,” says Martin. “If you can relieve the stress barrier, maybe we just might be a little bit more empathic towards one another.”