Women better than men at putting themselves in others’ shoes, study reveals


Women are on average more empathetic and better than men at putting themselves in others’ shoes, according to a new study involving over 300,000 people in 57 countries.

One fundamental quality of being human is the ability to imagine what another person is thinking or feeling, applying what is known as the “theory of mind”, also known as “cognitive empathy”.

The research, published in the journal PNAS, found women across all ages in most countries had more cognitive empathy than men.

Women scored more than men in a widely used test called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test – or Eyes Test for short – that measures cognitive empathy.

To study the development of the “theory of mind” using the Eyes Test, participants are told to look at a photo of a person and pick a word that best describes what that person is thinking or feeling by just looking at the area around their eyes.

While previous studies found women on average scored greater than men on “theory of mind” tests, most of them were limited to relatively small samples without much diversity in terms of geography, culture or age.

In the new study, scientists from the University of Cambridge in the UK merged large samples from different online platforms to analyse data from over 300,000 participants across 57 countries.

Women on average scored significantly more than men in 36 countries and similar to men in 21 countries on the Eyes Test, according to the study.

Men on average did not get a score more than women on the Eyes Test in any country, scientists said.

They could also confirm this on-average sex difference in three independent datasets as well as on non-English versions of the Eyes Test spanning eight languages.

“Our results provide some of the first evidence that the well-known phenomenon – that females are on average more empathic than males – is present in wide range of countries across the globe,” David M Greenberg, the lead scientist on the study, said in a statement.

“It’s only by using very large data sets that we can say this with confidence,” Dr Greenberg said.

While the latest study cannot explain the cause of this sex difference, it is suspected on the basis of previous research that this may be due to both biological and social factors.

“Studies of on-average sex differences say nothing about an individual’s mind or aptitudes, since an individual may be typical or atypical for their sex,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, another study co-author.

“The Eyes Test reveals that many individuals struggle to read facial expressions, for a variety of reasons. Support should be available for those who seek it,” Dr Baron-Cohen added.

The findings raise further questions about the social and biological factors that may underpin the observed on-average sex difference in cognitive empathy.



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