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 in which people interact socially, and it impacts the way their personal relationships develop.
Cognitive empathy is when a person is intellectually able to understand what someone else might be thinking or feeling, and they are even 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 bad time with their family over the holiday, a person with cognitive empathy will understand how that bad time makes the person feel by intellectually putting themselves in that other person’s shoes, so to speak.
It’s different from another kind of empathy called affective – or emotional – empathy, when a person feels another person’s emotions and responds with an appropriate reaction or emotion. For example, if someone is crying about a broken relationship, a person with emotional empathy would start to feel sad too, and feel compassion for that person as a result.
There’s a test on the University of Cambridge’s website that tests both forms of empathy. To conduct this new study, researchers used a different test – something called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test,” or the “Eyes 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 photos of the area around a person’s eyes. The person is making a particular kind of facial expression, and the study participant must identify what that person is thinking or feeling from a set of possibilities. Scientists will often use this test to help determine if someone has mental or cognitive issues. Earlier research has shown that people with autism, for instance, often score lower on these tests; so do people with dementia, and people with eating disorders, among others.
To see if there cultural differences impacted empathy scores, data was collected from teams around the globe. The authors of the study worked at Cambridge University and Harvard University in the United States, Bar-Ilan University and Haifa University in Israel, as well as in Italy at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca. Merging their results with large samples from different online platforms, the authors of the study were able to capture results from nearly 306,000 people across 57 countries including Argentina, Croatia, Egypt, India, Japan and Norway.
In 36 countries, women scored on average significantly higher in their cognitive empathy scores than men did. In 21 of the countries, women’s and men’s scores were similar. There wasn’t a single country in which men scored better, on average, than women. The results held across eight languages and were consistent across the lifespan, from people ages 16 to 70 years old.
Scientists did see what author David M. Greenberg called a “shallow decline” in cognitive empathy as people got older.
“That shallow decline in empathy raises some questions about what are the contributing factors that are at play,” said Greenberg, a psychologist and researcher at Bar-Ilan University and Cambridge University.
The study could not determine why this decline occurs. Greenberg said it might be in part biological; perhaps there are hormone changes that happen in the body, or it might be something socially or environmentally impacting this as well.
The study also could not explain why women had so much more cognitive empathy than men, nor could the study speak to individual differences among participants.
The study builds on earlier research that came to the same conclusion: that women have higher cognitive empathy scores than men.
In some of those earlier studies, sex differences in empathy were sometimes attributed to biolgoical and social factors.
Some studies in animals and in infants also show this sex difference in empathy. There may be different genetic pathways underlying the development of this kind of empathy in the different sexes.
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Understanding sex differences in empathy could help researchers better understand why certain mental health problems impact more men than women. This latest study could also help scientists develop better support for people who may struggle to read facial expressions, the researchers said.
“This study clearly demonstrates a largely consistent sex difference across countries, languages, and ages,” study co-author Carrie Allison, who is the director of applied research at the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, said in a news release. “This raises new questions for future research about the social and biological factors that may contribute to the observed on-average sex difference in cognitive empathy.”