What can mice teach us about empathy?

Quite a lot apparently.

In a recent study Sarah Konrath and her Colleuges (2011) have shown that over a period from 1979-2009 there has been a decline empathy. Empathy has long been considered a trait of the ‘higher’ primates, it is what allows us to have an understanding of the emotions of others and ourselves and has aided in our ability to live and work together. It promotes cooperation and unity as opposed to conflict and isolation.

The study by Konrath et al. has shown that there has been a marked decrease in empathetic concern (Having tender concerned feelings about those less fortunate) and perspective taking (the ability to view a situation from another’s point of view). This could be one explanation for a decrease in pro-social behavior, and the general feeling that there has been a decline in "community" over recent years.

Since the mid 1980s, there has been an increase in narcissism, which allows us to look at others in our lives primarily as utilitarian as opposed to interdependent relationship partners. Furthermore, those who show greater narcissistic traits tend to react more aggressively when their egos are threatened by rejection and/or insult.

While there has been an increase in "online" relationships this tends to add a "buffer" between individuals as opposed to strengthening our relationships. When there is a buffer between individuals it makes it easier to ignore others pain, and even easier to inflict pain on others (Milgram, 1974). If you have ever experienced the bite of an internet troll you can relate to the ease with which internet anonymity allows people to act in ways they wouldn’t dream if you were standing right in front of them.

Humans are naturally social creatures. Positive social relationships are one of the main pillars of well-being. We thrive when we are in groups, and would not have been able to evolve to this point without an ability to understand the emotions of others (Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, and Stone, 2009). The loss of empathy over the past few years has lead to a generation of people who are unable to understand each other on a deeper more meaningful level. If we are constantly looking at another in terms of what they can do for us, how can we truly have an authentic connection with them?

Sherry Turkle has found that we are increasingly lonely and have a desire to connect with one another but we have lost the skills required to do so. For many young people "party" drugs like Ecstasy and MDMA have become a way for them to experience the feeling of being connected with one another.

Can mice really lead us back to a world of empathy?

Madonna recently got herself into trouble at the Ultra Music festival as she took the stage to introduce the electronic music DJ known as Avicii. In an attempt to connect with an audience that likely wasn’t born when she was being touched "Like a Virgin" or striking a pose in "Vogue," Madonna asked the audience "How many in this crowd have seen Molly?" "Molly" is a term associated with MDMA…the active chemical in ecstasy. Judging by the cheers from the audience there were a few people there who had seen Molly…and may have believed Madonna to be her. 

Despite coming across as "cool" to some, Madonna drew the ire of a very popular mouse.

Joel Zimmerman aka Deadmau5 is an electronic music DJ who is famous for appearing in public wearing a huge mouse head. Zimmerman has criticized Madonna for promoting the stereotype that all people who enjoy electronic music, do so only under the influence of drugs.

Are drugs prevalent at electronic music events? Yes. No one will try to say otherwise.

The reality is however that drugs are prevalent in our society today…and to point at one specific genre of music and say that it is the cause of the issue is naïve and counter productive.

The real question should be; why are young people attracted to ecstasy in the first place?

I believe the answer lies in the decrease in empathy, in our desire to connect without the knowledge of how.

Enter the mice.

In a groundbreaking study Dale Langford and his colleagues (2006) found that mice and rats were able to show empathy for their cage mates. In other words…as we have been losing our ability to connect with one another the mice have been learning how it is beneficial.

Could it be a different type of mouse that leads us back to connection sans drugs?

Zimmerman believes that “Music is meant to provoke feeling and thought”. Music has the ability to connect us to our own deep emotions, and it is able to convey the emotion of the person preforming or composing the piece.

Music ties us to the best vision of our future. It allows us to listen, to understand, and to be moved. Music can act as an emotional release. It doesn’t just tell the story of the best version of ourselves.it pulls us there.

DJ Mikey Da Roza describes the role of an electronic music DJ: “The best DJ’s are able to read….to feel their audience. They have to be able to know what track to play to engage them…and then how to lead them on a journey to where you want them to be”.

Essentially DJ’s have to be experts at empathy.

Music connects us.

If we can reverse the story of the Pied Piper and follow the mice towards a greater level of empathy perhaps we can move towards a world where "Molly" is simply the name of an adorable little girl.


Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method. Science, 306, 1776-1780.

Konrath, S., O'Brien, E., Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students overtime: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 180-198.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York, NY: Harper & Rowe.

About the Author

Jaime Booth Cundy BSW, MAPP

Jaime Cundy is a writer and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program.

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