Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Technische Universität Dresden found that for some people, watching someone else go through a stressful moment can lead to an increase in their own stress hormone levels.
“The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing,” study researcher Veronika Engert, of the Max Planck Institute, said in a statement.
The study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, involved partners that were made up of either strangers of the opposite sex, or loved ones. Researchers had one person in the pair watch the other through a one-way mirror, or through a live video feed, as he or she had to complete arithmetic or mental tasks and interviews with supposed behavioral analysts looking on (so as to induce stress). Most of the people who were put up to the stressful task had increases in their levels of the stress hormone cortisol (only 5 percent of the participants didn’t experience a cortisol increase).