By Emma Young
Three people are walking down the street, two women and a man. One of the women stumbles and falls. Which of the two observers will feel more empathy for their pain? Hundreds of studies suggest that it will be the woman. However, these results come almost predominantly from self-reports. Objective evidence that women really feel more empathy than men is very scanty. This has led to the idea that women report more empathy, not because they actually feel it, but to meet the societal expectations that they should have. A new study in Scientific reports claims to provide evidence that even when girls believe no one else is looking or asking, show more empathy than boys.
Joyce F. Benenson of the University of Quebec and colleagues formed pairs of five to seven year old children so that one member of the couple might suffer misfortune and the other could witness it. The members of the 32 female and 23 male couples knew each other but were not viewed as best friends or enemies by their teachers. (The researchers agreed with the couples because previous studies have shown that we have more empathy for people of the same sex. Therefore, any gender difference in empathy should be easier to see.)
Each couple was taken to a room in their own school. It was empty except for two baskets with plastic blocks at the entrance and a table at the other end. The children were asked if they would be willing to bring the blocks to the table and build a tower. (The somewhat detailed full story was about extraterrestrial children who had to contact their parents; the children all seemed to want to participate, the researchers report.) Before the experimenter left the room, he warned them that a basket was something broken if a child finds that his blocks have fallen, he should simply pick them up with his hands and carry them to the table.
Hidden cameras then recorded what happened when the researchers remotely controlled one of the baskets to split it, causing the child’s bricks to fall out. The team focused on the other child’s reactions and assessed them using four “empathy indicators”: looking at the victim for more than three seconds; stop their own activity for more than a second; stop their activity until the other child has placed a block on the tower; and actively intervene by lifting the basket or blocks.
Eight of the girls and none of the boys were involved in all four behaviors (although seven girls and five boys had none at all). Overall, significantly more girls than boys looked at the victim for more than three seconds and gave them the opportunity to recover before placing their own block. The female bystanders displayed “more empathetic behavior than male bystanders,” the team concluded, adding, “It is very likely that women experience a greater sense of empathy that motivates them to behave in ways that are more caring for them the victim shows. “
It is possible. It could be that, as the researchers argue, they found behavioral indicators of gender differences in empathy. But there are other possible explanations as well. It could be that girls are more patient or pleasant than boys (there is research showing that girls and women tend to score higher than men on this personality trait), or that boys were more competitive and preferred to build on top of acting They felt empathy for their partner. In fact, the majority of boys took a break from whatever they were doing after the accident. Most did not show any other “empathic activities”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t feel the same empathy for their unhappy partners as the girls. Maybe girls really do feel more empathetic, but it’s not possible to draw conclusions from this study.
– Girls show more empathy than boys after a minor accident
Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) works at BPS Biomedarticles