Gladiators Beware: Stress Can Be Transmitted Through TV



Before you sit down to a Netflix marathon session of  Scandal or Breaking Bad, consider yourself warned. A new study suggests that when we watch characters endure stressful situations, we experience stress ourselves. In other words, anxiety is contagious. 

Researchers from  Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and Dresden University of Technology in Germany measured people’s stress response to watching either a loved one, or a stranger of the opposite sex, in a stressful situation – specifically being asked to do a mock job interview and mental arithmetic.

Around one in four “observers” (26%) experienced heightened stress levels – measured using salivary cortisol levels – when watching the “targets”. As may be expected, the observer was more likely to be stressed if the person they were watching was their partner (40% of observers becoming stressed) rather than a stranger (10%).

The positive, the study may show that most  humans are innately empathetic and it often upsets us when we see loved ones – and in some cases, strangers – in stressful circumstances. The negative, watch too many riveting dramas and you’ll end up on blood pressure meds.

It was published in the medical journal Psychoneuroendocrinology – it has been accepted for publication and is currently available as an unedited manuscript. This is not the final publication of the study and may include some errors.


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