Reducing social stress elicits emotional contagion of pain in mouse and human strangers

Loren J. Martin, Georgia Hathaway, Kelsey Isbester, Sara Mirali, Erinn L. Acland, Nils Niederstrasser, Peter M. Slepian, Zina Trost, Jennifer A. Bartz, Robert M. Sapolsky, Wendy F. Sternberg, Daniel J. Levitin, Jeffrey S. Mogil

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Empathy for another's physical pain has been demonstrated in humans [1] and mice [2]; in both species, empathy is stronger between familiars. Stress levels in stranger dyads are higher than in cagemate dyads or isolated mice [2, 3], suggesting that stress might be responsible for the absence of empathy for the pain of strangers. We show here that blockade of glucocorticoid synthesis or receptors for adrenal stress hormones elicits the expression of emotional contagion (a form of empathy) in strangers of both species. Mice and undergraduates were tested for sensitivity to noxious stimulation alone and/or together (dyads). In familiar, but not stranger, pairs, dyadic testing was associated with increased pain behaviors or ratings compared to isolated testing. Pharmacological blockade of glucocorticoid synthesis or glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid receptors enabled the expression of emotional contagion of pain in mouse and human stranger dyads, as did a shared gaming experience (the video game Rock Band) in human strangers. Our results demonstrate that emotional contagion is prevented, in an evolutionarily conserved manner, by the stress of a social interaction with an unfamiliar conspecific and can be evoked by blocking the endocrine stress response.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)326-332
Number of pages8
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number3
Early online date15 Jan 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2 Feb 2015


  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Emotions/drug effects
  • Empathy/drug effects
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Metyrapone/pharmacology
  • Mice
  • Pain Perception/physiology
  • Social Behavior
  • Stress, Psychological/physiopathology


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