The Biology of Empathy

By Mario Aceves | September 1, 2006 | 0 comments

Gender stereotypes presume that men are less emotionally intelligent than women; research has found that the truth is not so simple.  Yet a new study suggests that when it comes to empathy, gender might matter.

Dutch neuroscientist Erno Jan Hermans and his colleagues set out to test whether testosterone directly inhibits a person’s ability to empathize with someone else—that is, whether it makes him less prone to take another person’s perspective and understand what she is thinking or feeling. To gauge empathy in their study’s 20 female participants, the researchers showed the women 16 short video clips of happy or angry faces (see figure). As the women watched the clips, an instrument called an electomyograph recorded the muscle movement in their faces, measuring how much their expressions unconsciously mimicked the faces in each video. Previous research has shown this kind of facial mimicry to be an accurate marker of empathy.

Before watching the clips, the women received either a dose of testosterone or a placebo. As the researchers had predicted, mimicry of both kinds of facial expressions was weaker after the women had received testosterone.

Although these results do suggest that testosterone might reduce empathic behavior, there are some limitations to this study. For instance, while facial mimicry may be one component of empathic behavior, it is clearly not the defining feature. Before we conclude that testosterone leaves men at an emotional disadvantage, additional studies must show that testosterone affects the many other dimensions of empathy.

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About The Author

Mario Aceves is a Greater Good Science Center Graduate Fellow.


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