To many people it may come as little surprise that women on average are better than men at putting themselves in others' shoes and imagining what another person is thinking or feeling. However, not only has the stereotypical verdict now been confirmed across 57 countriesin the largest study to date, but also it was observed "across all ages and most countries", according to the researchers. "Importantly, there was no country where males on average scored significantly higher than females," they said.
The study, led by the University of Cambridge and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, set out to explore the attribute formally known as 'cognitive empathy', which the authors described as "a fundamental part of human social interaction and communication", also known as 'theory of mind'.
Women Better at 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes'
They said that one of the most widely used tests for studying theory of mind is the 'reading the mind in the eyes' test (or eyes test, for short), first developed in 1997 by Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, and his research team.
The eyes test asks participants to pick which of a choice of words best describes what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling, just by viewing photos of their eye region. In its revised 2001 version, it has become a well-established assessment of theory of mind and 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.
Previous studies have demonstrated that on average women have an advantage on the eyes test, but most of these studies were limited to relatively small samples, without much diversity in terms of geography, culture, and/or age, and it was unknown whether the female advantage persisted across the lifespan or across countries. So the team set out to assess sex and age differences using the English version of the eyes test in merged samples from 57 countries including a total of 305,726 English-speaking volunteers aged 16 to 70 recruited online between February 2013 and May 2019.
No Country for Empathic Men
On a 36-item eyes test, female participants scored on average significantly higher than males in 36 countries, and had scores similar to males in 21 countries. In no country were men's average scores significantly higher than women's. The sex difference in average scores was seen across the lifespan, from 16 to 70 years of age, and confirmed in three independent datasets.
It was also confirmed in translated versions of the test, with a statistical female advantage seen in 12 of 16 countries on non-English versions of the eyes test spanning eight languages. Exploratory country-level analyses showed that the female advantage was negatively linked to 'prosperity' and 'autonomy', and positively linked to 'collectivism'.
The team also demonstrated that empathizing-systemising 'brain types' predicted eyes test performance above and beyond sex differences.
Dr David Greenberg, lead scientist on the study and honorary research associate at Cambridge University, 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 a wide range of countries across the globe. It's only by using very large data sets that we can say this with confidence."
Although the study could not determine the cause of this sex difference, the authors said that prior research suggested it could be the result of both biological and social factors.
Consistent Sex Difference Across Countries, Languages, and Ages
Team member Dr Carrie Allison, director of applied research at the Autism Research Centre, said: "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."
Professor Baron-Cohen, senior author of 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."
Anyone can take the 'reading the mind in the eyes' test at www.yourbraintype.com.
The following funders are acknowledged: The Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program, the Wellcome Trust, the Innovative Medicines Initiative (and its Joint Undertaking, which receives support from the European Union's Horizon 2020 and EFPIA and Autism Speaks, Autistica, and SFARI), the Autism Centre of Excellence at Cambridge (ACE), SFARI, the Templeton World Charitable Fund, the Medical Research Council (MRC), the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre, and the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration East of England.
The authors declare no competing interest.