Do Girls Really Show More Empathy Than Boys?

Posted on May 21, 2021

Three people are walking down the street, two women and one man. One of the women trips and falls. Which of the two observers will feel more empathy for her pain?

Hundreds of studies suggest that it’ll be the woman. However, these results almost overwhelmingly come from self-reports. Objective evidence that women genuinely feel more empathy than men is very thin on the ground. This has led to the idea that women report more empathy not because they actually feel it but to conform to societal expectations that they should. However, a new study in Scientific Reports claims to provide evidence that, even when they think no one else is looking or asking, girls show more empathy than boys.

Joyce F Benenson at the University of Quebec and colleagues set up pairs of 5- to 7-year-old children, so that one member of the pair would suffer a misfortune, and the other would witness it. The members of each of the 32 female pairs and 23 male pairs knew each other, but weren’t considered by their teachers to be best friends or enemies. (The researchers sex-matched the pairs because earlier studies have suggested that we feel more empathy for people of the same sex — so any sex difference in empathy should be easier to spot.)

Each pair was taken to a room in their own school. It was empty but for two baskets of plastic building blocks by the entrance, and a table at the far end. The children were asked if they’d be willing to take the blocks to the table and build a tower. (The somewhat elaborate full story involved alien children who needed to contact their parents; the children all seemed to want to take part, the researchers report.) Before leaving the room, the experimenter did warn them that one basket was a little broken, so if a child found that their blocks fell, they should just pick up them up with their hands and carry them over to the table.

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Category(s):Emotional Intelligence, Empathy

Source material from British Psychological Society

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