We all know the stereotype: Women are better than men at taking other people’s perspectives, feeling their pain, and experiencing compassion for them. Surveys of men and women suggest there’s some truth to that assumption. But it’s not clear if women’s empathy is the result of nature or nurture.
Some research suggests women’s brains are more likely to signal empathy than men’s brains. A 1995 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology showed that women involuntarily imitate other peoples’ emotional expressions more than men—a behavior thought to reflect increased activity of “mirror neurons,” cells in the brain that activate both when someone performs an action and when he or she sees someone else perform that same action. Still, no research has compared the frequency or intensity of mirror neuron activity between the sexes.
Other studies have suggested that rational thought trumps empathy in men’s brains more than in women’s brains. For instance, a 2003 article in the journal Neuroreport found that when women were asked to identify other people’s emotions, their brain activity indicated they were truly feeling the emotions they saw. Men, by contrast, showed activity in brain regions associated with rational analysis, indicating they were just identifying the emotions and considering whether they’d seen them before—a more objective position.
All that said, research has shown that men and women do not differ consistently in their ability to detect their own or other people’s emotions. Since accurate detection of emotions is a first step toward feeling empathy, this finding suggests men and women at least start out biologically equal. Supporting this idea is a 1993 study from the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which found that infant boys rated just as highly as infant girls in their sensitivity and attention to other people.
So while some research suggests women are more empathic than men, perhaps this is the only definitive conclusion we can draw: Almost all humans, regardless of sex, have the basic ability to cultivate empathy.
About The Author
Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center.