Women have more sympathy than men, Israeli study finds

This finding was observed across all ages and most countries said the research team, who added that it was the largest study of the theory of mind to date.

 LET WOMEN walk Jerusalem’s streets comfortably.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
LET WOMEN walk Jerusalem’s streets comfortably.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

It’s a shame that there will be many fewer women in the new Israeli government for a variety of reasons; now there is a new reason proven in a study of over 300,000 people in 57 countries.

On average, women are better than men at putting themselves in others’ shoes and imagining what the other person is thinking or feeling, according to the study published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the [US] National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Entitled “Sex and age differences in ‘theory of mind’ across 57 countries using the English version of the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test,” it was led by Prof. David Greenberg, a Zuckerman Scholar at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and an honorary research associate at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

Women score higher than men on the widely used “Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test,” which measures “theory of mind” (also known as ‘cognitive empathy’). This finding was observed across all ages and most countries said the research team, who added that it was the largest study of the theory of mind to date.

For decades, researchers have studied the development of theory of mind, from infancy to old age. One of the most widely used tests with which to study theory of mind is the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test (or Eyes Test, for short), which asks participants to pick which word best describes what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling, just by viewing photos of the eye region of the face.

The Eyes Test was first developed in 1997 by Prof. Sir Simon Baron-Cohen and his research team at Cambridge and was revised in 2001. It has become a well-established assessment of theory of mind and is one of two recommended tests for measuring individual differences in ‘Understanding Mental States’ by the US National Institute of Mental Health.

AN ARAB woman walks past a Jewish couple at the Western Wall (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)AN ARAB woman walks past a Jewish couple at the Western Wall (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Over the decades, many independent research studies have found that women on average score higher than men on theory of mind tests – but most of these were limited to relatively small samples, without much diversity in terms of geography, culture, and/or age. To address these shortcomings, a team of multidisciplinary researchers that included colleagues at the University of Haifa, Harvard University, the University of Washington and IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca in Italy has merged large samples from different online platforms to analyze data from 305,726 participants across 57 countries.

Women outrank men in all 21 countries included

THE RESULTS showed that the average woman scored significantly higher than men in 36 countries or similar to men (in 21 countries), on the Eyes Test. Importantly, there was no country where men on average scored significantly higher than women on the Eyes Test. The on-average sex difference was seen across the lifespan, from 16 to 70 years of age. The team also confirmed this on-average sex difference in three independent datasets and on non-English versions of the Eyes Test, spanning eight languages.

Our results provide some of the first evidence that the well-known phenomenon – that women are on average more empathic than men – 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,” Greenberg noted.

Although this study cannot discern the cause of this on-average sex difference, the authors discuss on the basis of prior research that this may be the result of both biological and social factors.

Baron-Cohen, director of the autism research center at Cambridge and a senior author on the study, added: “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.”

The researchers also showed that, in addition to gender, ‘D-scores’ (the difference between a person’s drive to systemize and their drive to empathize) are a significant negative predictor of scores on the Eyes Test. This adds to an earlier study led by Greenberg in 2018 of over 650,000 participants, also published in PNAS that found that D-scores accounted for 19 times more of the variance in autistic traits than did sex or indeed any other demographic variable. Thus, D-scores appear to play a more important role than sex in aspects of human cognition.

Dr. Carrie Allison, director of applied research at the autism research center and a member of the team, 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.”

Anyone who wants to find out how they score on the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test” can take this at www.yourbraintype.com.