A fundamental part of human social interaction and communication involves putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, to imagine another person’s thoughts and feelings. This is known as the ‘theory of mind’ or ‘cognitive empathy’.
For decades, researchers have studied the development of the theory of mind, from infancy to old age. One of the most widely used tests asks participants to pick which word best describes what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling, just by viewing photos of the eye region of the face.
The Eyes Test was first developed in 1997 by Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen and his research team at Cambridge was revised in 2001 and has become a well-established assessment of the theory of mind. It is listed as one of two recommended tests for measuring individual differences in ‘Understanding Mental States’ by the National Institute of Mental Health in the US.
Female or Male: Who is Best in Reading the Mind in the Eyes?
Over the decades, many independent research studies have found that females on average score higher than males on the theory of mind tests. However, most of these studies were limited to relatively small samples, without much diversity in terms of geography, culture, and/or age.
To address these shortcomings, a team of multidisciplinary researchers has merged large samples from different online platforms to analyze data from 305,726 participants across 57 countries.
The results showed that across the 57 countries, females on average scored significantly higher than males (in 36 countries), or similar to males (in 21 countries), on the Eyes Test. Importantly, there was no country where males on average scored significantly higher than females on the Eyes Test.
The on-average sex difference was seen across the lifespan, from 16 to 70 years of age. The team also confirmed this on-average sex difference in three independent datasets and on non-English versions of the Eyes Test, spanning eight languages.
The results provide some of the first evidence that the well-known phenomenon – that females are on average more empathic than males – is present in a wide range of countries across the globe.
Although this study cannot discern the cause of this on-average sex difference, the authors discuss based on prior research that this may be the result of both biological and social factors.
Studies of on-average sex differences say nothing about an individual’s mind or aptitudes, since an individual may be typical or atypical for their sex. The Eyes Test reveals that many individuals struggle to read facial expressions, for a variety of reasons.
In addition to sex, ‘D-scores’ (the difference between a person’s drive to systemize and their drive to empathize) is a significant negative predictor of scores on the Eyes Test.
This study demonstrates a largely consistent sex difference across countries, languages, and ages. This raises new questions for future research about the social and biological factors that may contribute to the observed on-average sex difference in cognitive empathy.