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Combating Science Denial Through Play

Could we combat science denial by getting scientists to play Rock Band with non-scientists? Well, that might just be crazy enough to work.

A little background: I commute each day by bicycle and train, and there’s not quite enough time on the train to get any work done. For a while I listened to books on tape, but lately I’ve discovered podcasts. (“Hi Ann, the 21st century welcomes you!”)

One of my favorites is “The TED Radio Hour” and the latest episode—“Press Play” —was terrific. The episode explored the role and importance of play in our lives. The particular segment that got my attention discussed the research of Jeff Mogil at McGill University on how stress affects our ability to feel empathy.

Here’s the premise: There’s plenty of evidence that being in a room with a stranger increases stress (for example, sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, you know the feeling). Mogil’s experiment (published [behind a paywall] in the February 2, 2015 issue of Current Biology) explored whether that stress response also decreases our empathy for strangers.

Here’s how they tested it: Subjects were in a room with a bucket of ice water. They plunged a hand in the water for 30 seconds, then took their hand out and gave a rating of how much pain they felt. Then a friend comes into the room and they each simultaneously plunge a hand into ice water for 30 seconds. Again, afterwards the subjects rated their pain. OK, so go ahead and make a prediction. Do you think they would feel more or less pain when they took the ice bucket challenge with a friend?

The answer is more, and the reason given by the researchers is something called “emotional contagion.” In Mogil’s words: “the pain from your friend is adding to your own pain, just a little bit, making your experience of your own pain worse.” Emotional contagion, then, is a kind of empathy.

Is emotional contagion a universal human experience? Not under all circumstances. The researchers had the subjects repeat the experiment again, but this time, instead of a friend, the other person in the room was a stranger. Again, make a prediction: Was their pain more or less intense than when the subject was alone?

In this case, the answer is neither. Being with a stranger elicits no “emotional contagion” so your perception of pain is does not change. Our ability to feel empathy for strangers is diminished because just being with a stranger is stressful.

The researchers asked themselves whether there was anything they could do to reduce the stress and increase the empathy. So they asked the pairs of strangers to play the game Rock Band with each other for 15 minutes. For those of you who, like me, have not been paying attention for the last 20 years or so, Rock Band is a hugely popular video game that allows groups of people to play great rock hits together using controllers that mimic instruments. As Mogil describes it: “it’s a pretty cooperative game.”

The researchers found that when strangers played the game together for just 15 minutes, they subsequently tested at the same level of empathy as they had when they took the ice water plunge test with a friend. Mogil’s conclusion?  “What was blocking the empathy effect in strangers was stress. And playing Rock Band together blocked the stress. Block the stress and the empathy can emerge.”

You may be thinking, um, Ann? Where are you going with this? What does this have to do with science denial…or, anything?

Well, I was thinking about the research that shows that people generally think scientists are competent, but they don’t necessarily think they’re warm or trustworthy. This (mis)perception can get in the way when scientists try to communicate their results to non-scientists. So I’m thinking, maybe part of the problem is stress. Many people feel uncomfortable around scientists, who are, after all, almost always strangers (not to say, often enough, strange….). Maybe scientists should think about connecting with their audiences through play. While a rousing session of Rock Band may not be practical in every situation, it might be worth finding some way of engaging your audience in a cooperative game for a few minutes before trying to explain your science.  Worth a try?


This post originally appeared on the National Center for Science Education website.

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