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Empathy seems like it would be a trait that comes with age, one that we develop as we experience more of the world. Some people seem to be more empathetic than others, sure, but isn’t that all depending on the individual? Well, we now have some info that suggests that, in general, women tend to be more empathetic than men.
There are actually different types of empathy. In a recent study, researchers were specifically looking into “cognitive empathy.” Cognitive empathy centers around intellectually understanding another person’s emotions, thoughts and perspective in a way that allows you to predict how they’ll act or feel in the future. It’s all about being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes. This is different from affective (or emotional) empathy, which means being affected by and adopting a semblance of another person’s feelings and emotions. For example, if you’re the type of person to actually feel sad when you see another person crying.
Through what researchers call the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test,” they were able to gauge a subject’s ability to identify another person’s feelings from photos of their eyes and the area around them showing an expression. Using this test, researchers analyzed over 300,000 subjects from 16 to 70 years old from 57 countries around the world. Based on the results, women scored higher in cognitive empathy than men in every single country included. In 36 of those countries, women scored significantly higher.
“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 a wide range of countries across the globe. It’s only by using very large data sets that we can say this with confidence,” said David Greenberg, a psychologist and social neuroscientist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and lead author of the study.
In the past, science has shown that most of us are born with similar abilities to empathize, but our choice to use this ability ends up changing as we grow. With the research we already have, it looks like gender differences likely stem from cultural expectations of gender roles and how women learn empathy from female role models as they mature.