Social Connectedness Makes Our Hearts Beat Together

Is it any real surprise to learn that it is easier to empathize with people who are emotionally and socially close to you?  A recent article posted on BPS Research Digest’s blog discussed a study by Cwir and colleagues (2011) which indicated that even the superficial sense of connectedness to another person was sufficient to lead to mirroring of their emotional and physiological states.

In this study, researchers had participants (undergraduate volunteers) reveal their favorite places to visit and cultural interests.  Between one and ten weeks later, participants engaged in what they believed to be a completely separate study.  This “separate” study was described to them as either a cognition and personality experiment (study one) or a study on the physiological effects of exercise (study two).

In both study one and study two, participants were paired with another student who was actually in cahoots with the researchers.  A self-identified experimenter then proceeded to ask the two students general questions about themselves.  This was designed to facilitate a sense of social connectedness and a desire to know more about the other student.

In the first study (the one indicated as a cognition and personality experiment), this basic “getting to know you” stage was followed by a random task allocation: one of the students would have to give a presentation.  The student in on the experiment proceeded to act very nervous about having to give this presentation, showing visible signs of stress and anxiety.  During this time, the actual participant answered a personality questionnaire, with specific questions about their current mood and emotions.

The important finding that came out of this was that participants who had been led to feel socially connected to their partners reported mirroring the partner’s emotions (i.e., feeling more stressed than participants who had not felt socially connected to their partners).  Researchers surmised that empathy can be created between virtual strangers through very casual bonds.

In the second study (the one purported to be about the physiological effects of exercise), instead of having to prepare for a presentation, the other student was told to run on the spot for about three minutes.  In this study, the mere sight of their partner having to run vigorously was enough to result in the socially connected participants experiencing an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.  Even this weak social bond led to these virtual strangers’ hearts beating similarly.

Do you find yourself experiencing greater empathy and connectedness with other people through even the simplest of exchanges?  This study is an interesting reminder of how connected we all truly are.  What are some ways of using our innate tendency towards empathy and social connectedness in positive ways?

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Cwir, D., Carr, P.B., Walton, G.M., & Spencer, S.J. (2011). Your heart makes my heart move: cues of social connectedness cause shared emotions and physiological states among strangers. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(3), 661-664.

Featured image: Big Heart of Art – 1000 Visual Mashups by qthomasbower / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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