Science

Women Are Better Than Men At Understanding How Others Are Feeling

Walk a mile in why shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Yeah, before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes

Joe South

A fundamental part of human social interaction and communication involves putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, to imagine another person’s thoughts and feelings. This is known as ‘theory of mind’ or ‘cognitive empathy’.

For decades, researchers have studied the development of theory of mind, from infancy to old age. One of the most widely used tests with which to study theory of mind is the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test (or Eyes Test, for short), which asks participants to pick which word best describes what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling, just by viewing photos of the eye region of the face.

The Eyes Test was first developed in 1997 by Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen and his research team at Cambridge, and was revised in 2001, and has become a well-established assessment of theory of mind. It is listed as one of two recommended tests for measuring individual differences in ‘Understanding Mental States’ by the National Institute of Mental Health in the US.

And now a team of multidisciplinary researchers led by Cambridge University and with collaborators in Bar-Ilan, Harvard, Washington, and Haifa Universities, as well as IMT Lucca, has merged large samples from different online platforms to analyse data from 305,726 participants across 57 countries.

The results showed that across the 57 countries, females on average scored significantly higher than males (in 36 countries), or similar to males (in 21 countries), on the Eyes Test. Importantly, there was no country where males on average scored significantly higher than females on the Eyes Test. The on-average sex difference was seen across the lifespan, from 16 to 70 years of age. The team also confirmed this on-average sex difference in three independent datasets and on non-English versions of the Eyes Test, spanning eight languages.

Dr David M. Greenberg, the lead scientist on the study, a Zuckerman Scholar at Bar-Ilan and Honorary Research Associate at Cambridge, said:

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

If you are interested in finding out how you score on the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test, you can take this at www.yourbraintype.com

Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, and senior author on the study, said:

“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. 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.”

The study “Sex and age differences in ‘theory of mind’ across 57 countries using the English version of the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Image credit Kenny Armet