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People can Learn how to Empathize with Strangers, Study Says

Update Date: Dec 22, 2015 03:27 PM EST

People can be taught how to empathize with strangers, a new study concluded.

For this study, the researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland set out to examine if empathy can be learned and if positive experiences with others can affect that learning process.

The team, which was made up of psychologist and neuroscientist Grit Hein, Philippe Tobler, Jan Engelmann and Marius Vollberg, measured their participants' brain activity when they experienced different situations with other people. Participants could have a positive experience with a member of their own group (in-group) or a member of another group (out-group).

The experience with the in-group and out-group members involved expected pain. The participants were told that they would receive painful shocks to the backs of their hands. These shocks, however, could be avoided if an in-group or out-group member decides to pay money in exchange.

The team found that after a participant experienced several positive situations with out-group members, his/her brain responses to empathy increased significantly when they saw an out-group member get shocked. The team noted that the greater a participant's positive association to an out-group member was, the larger the increase in empathetic brain response became.

The researchers noted that in the beginning, prior to the positive experiences with strangers, a participant's brain empathetic response to a stranger getting shocked was significantly weaker than the participant's response to an in-group member getting shocked.

"These results reveal that positive experiences with a stranger are transferred to other members of this group and increase the empathy for them," Hein concluded reported by Medical Xpress.

The study's findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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