The Sex Difference Evangelists

Empathy Queens
Health and medicine explained.
July 2 2008 6:27 AM

The Sex Difference Evangelists

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click to enlarge.

In an over-the-top riff on womanly feeling in her book on sex differences, psychiatrist Louann Brizendine introduces Sarah, an icon of female empathy: "Maneuvering like an F-15, Sarah's female brain is a high-performance emotion machine—geared to tracking, moment by moment, the nonverbal signals of the innermost feeling of others." In sussing out emotion, Sarah is "just doing what the female brain is expert at," Brizendine concludes.

Amanda Schaffer and Emily Bazelon discuss the science of empathy.

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(Watch yesterday's video here.)

This is a core tenet of sex-difference evangelism. In 2003, British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen made the case that "The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy." Brizendine has run with that assertion, and author and psychologist Susan Pinker has jumped on the F-15 bandwagon as well, arguing that women have a powerful "empathy advantage." Culture may modify or amplify it, but this edge, these authors claim, is rooted in innate difference.

Take a closer look and you find that indeed some studies, which ask men and women about empathy, find higher-on-average scores for women (albeit with plenty of overlap between the sexes). But other research complicates the picture. To claim that any differences are innate is to descend into a rabbit hole of partial, flickering findings on infants and twins, hormones, and neural mechanisms. Brizendine and Pinker tend to downplay the complications. This makes the case that women are innately more empathetic than men seem stronger than it really is.

The simplest way to gather data on empathy is to get men and women to fill out questionnaires. Baron-Cohen's asks respondents whether they agree or disagree with statements like "I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation"; "I really enjoy caring for other people"; "When I was a child, I enjoyed cutting up worms to see what would happen." Baron-Cohen finds that women give themselves higher marks for empathizing. Further evidence comes from work by psychologist Alan Feingold, whose cross-cultural research Pinker cites. In the 1990s, Feingold reported that women in countries including the United States, Canada, Poland, Russia, and Germany (but not China) scored higher on average than men on questionnaires designed to measure how tender-minded and nurturing people are.

These studies get us only so far. Baron-Cohen calls the empathizing brain type E, or "the female brain," and contrasts it with systematizing brain type S, or "the male brain." But only 44 percent of women are type E—not even a majority. Which makes the labeling seem odd. When I asked him about this, Baron-Cohen admitted that he's thought twice about his male brain/female brain terminology, but he didn't disavow it.

What's most striking about Feingold's work, for its part, are the dates of the U.S. studies. When it comes to tender-mindedness, the largest differences between males and females come from work published between 1958 and 1962 and in 1968. The smallest differences appear in the most recent research listed, from 1985 and 1987. And the sex differences in the later studies are indeed small—the ones from 1987 are comparable to the difference in average height between 15- and 16-year-old girls.

Why did the gap narrow so dramatically? Feingold says that the later studies tended to omit items that were found to be " 'biased' against women." That might make comparisons among the studies tricky, but it also might mean that the recent numbers are more revealing. It's also worth noting that the male-female difference shrank over the very years in which second-wave feminism pushed for changes in traditional roles—and men began to spend more time with their children. Tender-mindedness, it would seem, is malleable.

Of course, what people say about themselves on questionnaires tells a limited story in any case. Psychologist Nancy Eisenberg made this point most dramatically in the 1980s, when she demonstrated that the empathy gap, which appeared in studies that relied on self-reporting, all but vanished when other measures like physiological responses or changes in facial expression were considered. Men and women differ in "how empathetic they would like to appear to others (and, perhaps, to themselves)," she wrote—and that's not the same thing as real underlying sex differences in empathy.

In the years since, the picture has only gotten cloudier. Some research finds associations between self-reporting and other measures, and other research suggests divergence, Eisenberg says. Other studies look at how well men and women discern emotion in photographs of faces or eyes. Sometimes they find a female advantage, and sometimes they don't, as Baron-Cohen told me.

But reading Brizendine and Pinker, you'd never know how muddled this literature is. And that's a problem, because the mess is central to the story.

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

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