A new joint study at the University, Cambridge University, and Bar-Ilan University including over 300,000 participants from 57 countries has found that, on average, women are more empathetic than men. While previous studies reached the same conclusion, they were based on much smaller and more focused samples, so that the researchers could not draw universal conclusions. The findings of the current study show that this is a cross-cultural human phenomenon. “The differences between women and men in terms of the ability to truly understand people they interact with have important ramifications in diverse social contexts. For example, we would expect to see significant differences in decision-making by companies, corporations, and even governments that implement gender equality by comparison to bodies where there is a gender imbalance in either direction,” remarked Prof. Ahmad Abu-Akel of the University, one of the authors of the study.

Empathy is a key mechanism for understanding other people’s emotions and share their distress, and as such affords us the ability to sense the need to help them. Behavioral and brain studies conducted in the past have found that actions relating to empathy are controlled in different ways by men and women through preferences acquired in the course of social interaction, including the use of different networks of the brain. One of the commonest tests for examining the level of cognitive empathy in humans is the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), which gauges the ability to identify internal emotional states by examining the eye region of the face. As noted, over the years, studies using RMET have found that the average level of empathy among women is higher than among men. However, the number of participants in these studies was small, of restricted age range, and above all they were confined almost entirely to the Western countries.

The current study, published in the prestigious journal PNAS, was led by Dr. David Greenberg of Bar-Ilan University and Cambridge University, Prof. Abu-Akel from the School of Psychological Sciences at the University, together with a team of researchers from Cambridge University, Harvard University, and Washington University. The study leveraged an impressively large sample figure of 305,736 participants aged 16-70, from 57 countries who undertook a RMET and completed cognitive questionnaires.

The results of the study show that in most countries (36 out of 57) women, on average, were more successful than men in identifying emotions, reflecting higher levels of empathy. The country with the largest gap between women and men was Pakistan, followed by Nigeria, Greece, and Poland. Israel ranked 41 out of the 57 countries, with a similar gap to those found in Denmark, China. Sweden, and Brazil. An analysis of the differences and gaps around the world shows that in countries defined as individualistic, such as the Western countries, the gaps between men and women are smaller. In collectivist countries that emphasize social cohesion, such as countries in Eastern Asia, the gaps in favor of women are larger. The researchers add that the precise nature of the mechanism that causes these cross-cultural differences remains unclear.

The study also found that in the age range 16-20 a significant increase can be seen each year in the empathetic abilities of both women and men (the researchers explain that empathetic ability develops at an even earlier age; however, the current study only included participants from age 16 up). At a later age, a decline – though very small – is seen in both sexes in empathetic ability. Specifically, the authors observed a rate of decline that is three times faster among men (at 0.15% per year) than among women (at 0.15% per year) who were 50 years an older. “In adolescence the brain is still in the formative stage. It has not stabilized and neural capabilities have not been finalized. Additional changes that seem to appear from the 50s would seem to further attest to the dynamic nature of our cognitive empathy,” commented Prof. Abu-Akel.

Based on the analysis of the cognitive questionnaires, the researchers calculated the “D-score,” reflecting a spectrum whose two ends are systemic thought and empathetic thought. According to the researchers, a person who has systemic thought looks for patterns and schemes and seeks to manage and perceive the world in a “rule-governed” manner. Conversely, a person with empathetic thought is much more attentive to the social aspects of their environment and to the emotions of others. In keeping with the results of the empathy test, it was found that men tend to lean toward systemic thought, while women showed evidence of more empathetic thought.

“The findings of our study show that women have a sharper understanding of others. They are better at identifying other people’s thoughts and they also have a stronger social sense. Until now, it could have been argued that this is a cultural characteristic resulting from specific patterns of socialization in the Western countries. The current study allows us to determine that while the cultural context is a factor, significant differences between women and men are found in all human societies,” Prof. Abu-Akel concludes.