Stranger Danger

It can be hard for us to have empathy for strangers because they STRESS US OUT. Research is showing that being around strangers increases stress and decreases empathy. Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, a researcher from Canada, has been conducting studies on emotional contagion. One experiment is simply putting two people who have never met in a room. Stress levels increase (e.g., heart beat increases, sweaty palms, etc.), and empathy for the stranger decreases.

Another experiment involves having research participants soak their hands in a freezing cold bucket of ice for thirty seconds and having them rate their pain.

  1. One condition is having a person do the ice bucket by themselves.
  2. Another condition is having a person and a stranger do the ice bucket together.
  3. And then the third condition is a person does the ice bucket experiment with a friend.
Ice Bucket Experiment

Ice Bucket Experiment

They found that being alone, and with strangers, resulted in about the same amount of pain. However, the condition with friends resulted in more pain. Interesting! 

My guess was that pain would decrease if there was a friend for support. “We’re in this together.” “I can get through anything with this awesome friend by my side.” This was not the case.

A possible explanation for the finding is empathy. We feel more pain when we do the experiment with a friend. When our friend is experiencing pain, our own pain increases. We have our own pain + a little bit more from our friend. Research shows that we have emotional empathy for friends, however not for strangers. No wonder it is so hard to put ourselves in another person’s shoes at times, and take their perspective when they are a stranger to us.

Does being around strangers increase stress + decrease empathy? Yes!

Another thing the emotional contagion researchers did was experiment with games and play. They found that when the strangers played a video game called Rock Band for a half hour their stress decreased and their empathy increased. So more support for the power of play. Yay! Simply playing a game together for a half hour can make a meaningful difference. 

Rock Band Game

Rock Band Game

Many caregivers tell children, “do NOT talk to strangers.” We do this to protect our little ones. One of my favorite quotes I use in my assessment class is from the theorist, Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner. He said we examine, “the strange behavior of children in strange situations with STRANGE ADULTS for the briefest possible periods of time” (1979, p. 19).

Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner

Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner

He wrote this decades ago. In many situations, we still conduct early childhood assessments today the way Bronfenbrenner described in the 1979 quote. There should be better ways to do assessment. 

When unfamiliar adults assess children, we may not see the child's true abilities and skills. Children are taught not to talk to strangers. And what do we do... we sometimes assess children when the assessor is a stranger. Take for instance a speech and language assessment where the assessor is diagnosing a delay or disorder. If  the assessor is a stranger and the child is taught not to talk to strangers,  an accurate diagnosis may be difficult. 

We can apply some of the research out of neuroscience and play with children. Allow the child to get to know the assessor via play before, during, and after an assessment. The result may be a more accurate picture of the child's abilities and development. 



Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mogil, J.S. (2012). Pain genetics: Past, present and future. Trends in Genetics, 28, 258-266.

Mogil, J.S. (2015). Social modulation of and by pain in humans and rodents. Pain, 156 (Suppl. 1), S35-41.