No matter where in the world they live, no matter what cultural or family influences they have: women are generally better able to empathize with other people than men, according to a study published in the journal PNAS on Monday.
The researchers, from the University of Cambridge in the UK, said the study is the largest of its kind to look at a specific form of empathy – something scientists call “theory of mind” or “cognitive empathy”.
Empathy is an important trait as it determines the way people interact socially and 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 is even able to use that knowledge to predict how the person will act or feel in the future . So, for example, if a person tells you that they had a bad time with their family over the holiday, a person with cognitive empathy will understand how that bad time is triggering the person by intellectually speaking putting themselves in that other person’s shoes.
It differs from another type of empathy called affective — or emotional — empathy when a person feels another person’s emotions and responds with an appropriate response or emotion. For example, when someone is crying over a broken relationship, a person with emotional empathy would also begin to feel sad and, as a result, feel compassion for that person.
There are and the exam on the University of Cambridge website, which tests both forms of empathy. To conduct this new study, the researchers used a other exam – something called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” or “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 makes a specific facial expression, and the study participant must identify what that person is thinking or feeling from a number of possibilities. Scientists often use this test to determine if someone has mental or cognitive problems. Previous research has shown that people with autism, for example, often do worse on these tests; so do the people with dementiaand people with eating disorderamong other.
To see if cultural differences affect empathy scores, data was collected from teams around the world. The study authors worked at Cambridge University and Harvard University in the US, Bar-Ilan University and Haifa University in Israel, and in Italy at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca. By combining their results with large samples from various online platforms, the study authors were able to collect results from almost 306,000 people in 57 countries, including Argentina, Croatia, Egypt, India, Japan and Norway.
On average, women performed significantly better than men on their cognitive empathy scores in 36 countries. In 21 of the countries, the scores of women and men were similar. In no single country did men perform better than women on average. The results were for eight languages and were consistent across the lifespan, from people aged 16 to 70.
Scientists saw what author David M. Greenberg called a “shallow decline” in cognitive empathy as people got older.
“This small drop in empathy raises some questions about what factors are at play,” he said GrunbergPsychologist and researcher at Bar-Ilan University and Cambridge University.
The study could not determine why this decrease occurs. Greenberg said it could be partly biological; maybe there are hormonal changes happening in the body, or it could also be something social or environmental that is affecting it.
The study also failed to explain why women had so much more cognitive empathy than men, nor could the study address individual differences between participants.
The study builds on this previous research who came to the same conclusion: that women have higher cognitive empathy scores than men.
In some of them previous studiesGender differences in empathy have sometimes been attributed to biological and social factors.
some studies This gender difference is also reflected in empathy in animals and infants. Different genetic pathways may underlie the development of this type of empathy in the different sexes.
Understanding gender differences in empathy could help researchers better understand why certain mental health problems affect more men than women. This latest study could also help scientists design better support for people who may have trouble reading facial expressions, the researchers said.
“This study clearly shows a broadly consistent gender difference across countries, languages and age groups,” said Carrie Allison, co-author of the study the director of applied research at Cambridge University’s Autism Research Center, according to a press release. “This raises new questions for future research on the social and biological factors that may contribute to the observed mean sex difference in cognitive empathy.”