There might be actually some truth behind the age-old stereotype that says women are sensitive, while men are more oblivious when someone is upset or offended. A new study with over 300,000 people in more than 50 countries found that women, on average, are significantly better than men at imagining what the other person is truly thinking or feeling.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge found that women score higher than men on the widely used “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, which measures “theory or mind” (also known as cognitive empathy). This was seen across all ages and in most countries. The research is the largest study of the theory of mind to be done so far.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand and process other people’s perspectives or mental states — what they might be feeling or thinking. It makes us able to feel other person’s feelings and use that knowledge to predict how they will react. Researchers have studied for decades the development of cognitive empathy, from infancy to old age.
One of the most used tests to study the concept is the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test, which asks participants to pick which word best describes what the person in a photo is thinking or feeling. While studies have found females on average scored higher than males, most had relatively small samples without much diversity in age and geography.
To address these gaps, 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, have merged massive samples from online platforms to analyze data from over 305,000 participants across a total of 57 very diverse countries.
“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,” David Greenberg, the lead author on the study, said in a statement.
The study showed women scored significantly higher in cognitive empathy than men in 35 countries, on average. Women and men also scored equally in 21 of the countries. In fact, there wasn’t a single country where men outperformed women, and the findings were consistent across eight languages and across the lifespan, from 16 to 70 years old.
The researchers found a decline in women’s empathy after the age of 50, which they believe could be related to hormonal changes linked to menopause – although more research is needed to understand if it actually has a role in the process. Meanwhile, men’s empathy, based on the test results, starts to decline after the age of 58.
Having a better understanding of the sex differences in empathy could help researchers in getting a grasp on why certain mental health problems affect men more than women, the researchers argued. They believe their latest study could also help scientists to develop better support for people who struggle to read facial expressions.
“This study clearly demonstrates a largely consistent sex difference across countries, languages, and ages. 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,” Carrie Allison, a study author, said in a statement.