Can viewing others experiencing stress create a “contagious” physiological stress response in the observer? To investigate second-hand stress, we first created a stimulus set of videos, which featured participants speaking under either minimal stress, high stress, or while recovering from stress. We then recruited a second set of participants to watch these videos. All participants (speakers and observers) were monitored via electrocardiogram. Cardiac activity of the observers while watching the videos was then analyzed and compared to that of the speakers. Furthermore, we assessed dispositional levels of empathy in observers to determine how empathy might be related to the degree of stress contagion. Results revealed that depending on the video being viewed, observers experienced differential changes in cardiac activity that were based on the speaker’s stress level. Additionally, this is the first demonstration that individuals high in dispositional empathy experience these physiological changes more quickly.
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