Empathy: Women are better at this than men, study finds

featured image


No matter where they live in the world, no matter what their cultural or family influences, in general, women are better at empathizing with other people than men, according to a study published Monday in the journal PNAS.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge in the UK, said the study is the largest of its kind to date, looking at a particular form of empathy – something scientists call “theory of mind” or “cognitive empathy”.

Empathy is an important quality because it governs the way people interact socially and affects the way their personal relationships develop.

Cognitive empathy occurs when a person is intellectually able to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling, and is able to use that knowledge to predict how the person will act or feel going forward. So if, for example, a person is telling you that they had a hard time with their family over the holidays, a person with cognitive empathy will understand how that bad time makes the person feel by intellectually putting themselves in the other person’s shoes, so speak.

It differs from another type of empathy called affective – or emotional – empathy, where a person senses another person’s emotions and responds with an appropriate reaction or emotion. For example, if someone is crying over a broken relationship, a person with emotional empathy also starts to feel sad and, as a result, feels compassion for that person.

There is a test on the University of Cambridge website that tests both forms of empathy. To conduct this new study, the researchers used a different test — something called the “Mind-Eye-Reading Test” or “Eye Test” for short. It helps measure a person’s ability to recognize another person’s mental state or emotions.

The test asks participants to look at pictures of the area around a person’s eyes. The person is making a particular type of facial expression, and the study participant must identify what that person is thinking or feeling from a set of possibilities. Scientists often use this test to help determine whether someone has mental or cognitive problems. Previous research has shown that people with autism, for example, tend to score lower on these tests; so do people with dementia and people with eating disorders, among others.

To see if cultural differences impacted empathy scores, data was collected from teams around the world. The authors of the study worked at the University of Cambridge and Harvard University, in the United States, at Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa, in Israel, and also in Italy, at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca. Combining their results with large samples from different online platforms, the study authors were able to obtain results from nearly 306,000 people in 57 countries, including Argentina, Croatia, Egypt, India, Japan and Norway.

Across 36 countries, women scored, on average, significantly higher on their cognitive empathy scores than men. In 21 of the countries, women’s and men’s scores were similar. There was not a single country where men scored higher on average than women. Results were obtained in eight languages ​​and were consistent across the lifespan of people ages 16 to 70.

Scientists have seen what author David M. Greenberg called a “shallow decline” in cognitive empathy as people age.

“This shallow decline in empathy raises some questions about what are the contributing factors at play,” said Greenberg, a psychologist and researcher at Bar-Ilan University and Cambridge University.

The study was unable to determine why this decline occurs. Greenberg said it could be partly biological; maybe there are hormonal changes that happen in the body, or it could be something socially or environmentally impactful as well.

The study also failed to explain why women had so much more cognitive empathy than men, nor could it speak to individual differences between participants.

The study builds on previous research that reached the same conclusion: that women have higher cognitive empathy scores than men.

In some of these earlier studies, sex differences in empathy were sometimes attributed to biological and social factors.

Some animal and baby studies also show this sex difference in empathy. There may be different genetic pathways underlying the development of this type of empathy in different sexes.

Understanding gender differences in empathy could help researchers better understand why certain mental health issues affect men more than women. This latest study may also help scientists develop better support for people who may have difficulty reading facial expressions, the researchers said.

“This study clearly demonstrates a broadly consistent sex difference across countries, languages ​​and ages,” said Carrie Allison, study co-author and director of applied research at the Center for Autism Research at the University of Cambridge, in a press release. “This raises new questions for future research into the social and biological factors that may contribute to the observed mean difference between the sexes in cognitive empathy.”