Shocker: scientist claims we can teach boys to be more sensitive

August 11, 2010

This post continues my serialization of Lise Eliot’s Sci Am Mind article on sex differences.

Here’s what Eliot has to say about empathy:

Aggression and empathy are inversely related. It is hard to attack someone if you are acutely aware of what he or she is feeling. So whereas men and boys score higher on measures of physical and verbal aggression, girls and women score higher on most measures of empathy, or the awareness and sharing of other people’s emotions, conclude psychologist Nancy Eisenberg of Arizona State University and her colleagues in studies dating back to the 1980s.

And yet the sex difference in empathy is smaller than most people realize and also strongly dependent on how it is measured. When men and women are asked to self-report their empathetic tendencies, women are much likelier than men to endorse statements such as “I am good at knowing how others will feel” or “I enjoy caring for other people.” When tested using more objective measures, however, such as recognizing the emotions in a series of photographed faces, the difference between men and women is much smaller, about four tenths of a standard deviation, meaning the average woman is more accurate than just 66 percent of men.

Here’s how Eisenberg and a co-author put it in a 1998 paper:

Sex differences were greatest when demand characteristics were high (i.e., it was clear what was being assessed) and individuals had conscious control over their responses (i.e., self-report indices were used); gender differences were virtually nonexistent when demand characteristics were subtle and study participants were unlikely to exercise much conscious control over their responding (i.e., physiological indices). Thus, when gender-related stereotypes are activated and people can easily control their responses, they may try to project a socially desirable image to others or to themselves

Back to Eliot:

In children, the difference is tinier still, less than half that found in adults, reported psychologist Erin McClure of Emory University in 2000 after analyzing more than 100 studies of sex differences in facial emotion processing in infants, children and adolescents. So although girls do start out a bit more sensitive to other people’s faces and emotions, their advantage grows larger with age, no doubt because of their stronger communication skills, more practice at role playing with dolls and more intimate friendships as compared with boys.

As boys grow, they — much more than girls — are taught to hide their expressions of fear, sadness and tenderness. Scientists agree that social learning largely shapes the male-female gap in emotional responding. Boys are toughened up in a way girls rarely are, making them less expressive but also less attuned to others’ feelings. This training almost certainly leaves its imprint on the amygdala, one of the more plastic structures in the brain. Teaching girls to be more resilient and boys to be more sensitive is possible and beneficial for both genders.


Next time: why girls outperform boys at reading and writing.


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