By Emma Young
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.
Hidden cameras then recorded what happened when the researchers remote-operated one of the baskets to split, causing that child’s bricks to tumble out. The team focused on the other child’s reactions, and rated them according to four “empathy indicators”: looking at the victim for more than three seconds; ceasing their own activity for longer than a second; ceasing their activity until the other child had placed a block on the tower; and actively intervening by picking up the basket or blocks.
Eight of the girls, and none of the boys, engaged in all four behaviours (though seven girls and five boys did not engage in any at all). Overall, significantly more girls than boys looked at the victim for more than three seconds and gave them chance to recover before placing their own block. The female bystanders “exhibited more empathic behaviour than male bystanders”, the team concluded, adding: “It is highly likely that females do experience greater feelings of empathy which motivate them to behave in ways that display more concern for victims.”
It is possible. It could be that, as the researchers argue, they have found behavioural indicators of sex differences in empathy. But there are other potential explanations. It might be that girls are more patient than boys, or more agreeable (there is research finding that girls and women tend to score higher on this personality trait than males), or that the boys were more competitive and prioritised getting on with building over acting on whatever empathy they felt for their partner. In fact, the majority of boys did pause whatever they were doing following the accident. Most didn’t show other “empathic activities”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t feeling the same empathy for their unlucky partners as the girls. Perhaps girls really do feel more empathy, but it’s not possible to conclude that from this study.