Men Can Empathize, But Don’t

On an empathic accuracy task (inferring the thoughts and feelings of a target person) … women’s advantage held only when women were given a task assessing their feelings of sympathy toward the target prior to performing the empathic accuracy task. … Payments in exchange for accuracy improved the performance of both men and women and wiped out any difference between men’s and women’s performances. Together, the results suggest that gender differences in empathic accuracy performance are the result of motivational differences and are not due to simple differences of ability between men and women.

More here.  This isn’t exactly good news for men.  Women who think men can’t empathize probably demand less empathy than women who realize men are fully capable of empathy.  Hat tip to Robert Wiblin.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • Pingback: I’ll second that emotion (for a dollar) « No Account Cowboy

  • gwern

    Hm. So this could be men trying to cheat on effort – but couldn’t this also be due to social signaling/posturing by men appearing tough and uncaring? (“I am so macho and powerful I don’t *need* to care about what you may or may not be feeling!”)

  • bellisaurius

    Hmm. Makes sense. Biology says we can empathize, but culture sets the limits and requirements.

    It should be noted that women letting us get away with less empathy might be why we let ourselves get away with it. Would this mean that performing empathy has a “cost” of some sort? If I don;t need to do it, why should I?

    As signaling value goes, a man who does a little, but not too much can win out, at least as far as mates are concerned. I wonder whether that plays in a woman’s head as “he will treat me well”, or more like “he’s confident enough to let himself get away with some less masculine characteristics.”

  • mark

    I’m not sure why the majority of society demanding men be more empathic is bad for men. I can’t think of any reason that I’d agree with.

    If there was an evolutionary cost you would think men would be actually incapable of it, rather then less likely to empathize.

    • gwern

      > If there was an evolutionary cost you would think men would be actually incapable of it, rather then less likely to empathize.

      Ignoring construction cost*, it’s better to have the ability to empathize but not be expected to use it than to not have the ability period. In the former, you can still use empathy when convenient/beneficial (predicting enemies etc.); and you can still not use it when inconvenient (when empathy might make you give stuff away or refrain from taking an advantage or some other cost).

      * it’s probably not simpler or cheaper for evolution to construct a male brain which has empathy selectively turned off but with the same predictive abilities in general

  • http://www.henryaj.co.uk/ Henry Stanley

    Does the fact that the study shows that men are just as able as women to empathise damage ES theory (the female brain is better at empathising, the male brain better at systemising) as set out by Baron-Cohen?

    I’m no expert on this but he seems to suggest that, on average at least, men are less able than women to empathise (and women are less able than men to systemise). But the men in this study could all be cajoled to empathise just as well as the women, suggesting that the differences are not material but are to do with motivation.

  • bd

    There is another possibility: that men and women tend to place different significance on the act of empathy.

    An ex of mine asked, “Why are men incapable of treating other people’s emotions and irrationalities with some delicacy?”

    Side-stepping the purple prose (“men” and “incapable” seem like unnecessarily inclusive here, and “delicacy” raises an eyebrow or two) I suggested that men are quite capable of doing this. In fact they do it every day. Typically with their boss. They might also extend this courtesy to very young children and armed lunatics.

    In other words, men tend to put forth the work of empathy to people who are dangerous (volatile bosses and armed criminals) or people incapable of caring for themselves. (children).

    Under this model, a woman asking a man to make accommodations with her feelings might be asking him to treat her in a way he usually reserves for potential enemies or people of diminished capacity. If he wants an equal relationship with this woman, he may find himself resisting this.

    He doesn’t want to be over-empathetic, because in his value system, empathy is not connected to caring for someone. It’s connected to believing that the person can’t care for themselves Or believing that the person is a threat. “Don’t ask me to treat you like a child. And don’t ask me to treat you like a boss whose volatile ego I have to tip-toe around.”

    And there can be a “Golden Rule” thing going here as well. ” He may not want to treat her “like a child” because he doesn’t want to be treated “like a child” either.

    With his peers, he can just relax and be himself. Male friendship and peerage is often a rough and tumble thing. It’s not to say that male friendship doesn’t have its own rules. Its just that significant empathy is not part of that. When he is dealing with people he cares about, he tends to default to his most comfortable and peer-like relationship model, which happens to feature minimal empathy.

    OTOH, when women collect in casual groups, significant empathy seems to be a part of the package. I don’t know why this difference exists. It might be socialized, of course. Or it might be that women naturally empathize more, and so doing so takes less work, and so including it in a casual social context is less stressful. Or the woman might be better at empathy for reasons of practice rather than any natural ability, but this still results in her including significant empathy in casual social circumstances Or some mix of the three, with the ratio varying with the woman.

    Whatever the cause, if women are more comfortable being empathic in casual social circumstances, she *may* tend to use that relationship model where it causes some friction. Like *perhaps* with her SO. It’s been said that most people treat their SO like a super version of a best friend. That’s fine, but men and women tend to come to a relationship with different models about what it is to be a best friend. They both exhibit and expect behaviors more typical of their same sex friends.

    Which would bring us back to the question of “Can men empathize as well as women?” Possibly. But we could also ask “Can women play first-person-shooter computer games as well as men?” Quite possibly, but statistically they don’t. How much of that difference is native ability, and how much is they simply don’t enjoy the process enough to put forth the effort?

    Again, men *can* and constantly *do* empathize. But it’s work. Often unpleasant work. Speaking personally: I can do office X-mas parties. I don’t enjoy them much, but I can do them. My SO, OTOH, thrives on them. We can both *do* X-mas parties, but guess which one of us will do more of them?

    This is, of course, overstating the case somewhat for rhetorical purposes. And it hugely simplifies as very complex interaction. And of course it treats “men” and “women” as uniform lumps, which of course they are not. And as long as we are at it: 16-year-olds are not uniformly dangerous drivers. To assume so is stereotyping. I can quickly and easily cite at least 30 counter examples. But I suspect the insurance companies have some pretty strong opinions on the matter all the same.

  • Mathew

    To the author and all assholes here saying it’s goo to not be expected to empathize: how selfish.

  • Pingback: Will Empathize For Food | Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP

  • J.D.

    If men can empathize as much as women, but still commit the vast majority of all violent crimes, then in theory, that means that they can actually feel that they’re hurting other people, but continue in doing it anyway. So, if there really is equality in regards to empathy, then what are some men doing to so completely avoid it, such that they can still manage to be responsible for the vast majority of violent crimes committed on this planet? At the end of the day, all this seems to prove is that having empathy doesn’t mean all that much…you have to actually use it.