Are women naturally more empathetic?
New science confirms long-held belief that gender plays a role in how well people can read the emotions of others.
Can you tell what another person is thinking simply by looking into their eyes?
That's not just an open-ended question; it's also the basis of a major study that began some 20 years ago by examining how people interpret the thoughts and feelings of others. It's called cognitive empathy, and it involved scientists from all over the world – including England, France, the U.S., Israel, Australia and the Netherlands.
The research involved asking each participant to read another person's thoughts just by making eye contact. If their interpretation matched the other person's actual thoughts, the participant receives a high score. They called it the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test, or just "the Eyes test" for short.
The findings at the time were fascinating for one key reason: Women fared much better on this exam than men. (Don't shoot the messenger, sir.)
Now, two decades later, that same team has joined forces with genetics company 23andMe to recreate the study and see if the results still hold true.
And, sure enough, they do. After surveying almost 90,000 people, the researchers found that gender definitely plays a role in the scoring of the Eyes Test.
"We are excited by this new discovery, and are now testing if the results replicate, and exploring precisely what these genetic variants do in the brain, to give rise to individual differences in cognitive empathy," said Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the lead authors of the study and a professor at the University of Cambridge. "This new study takes us one step closer in understanding such variation in the population."
The new research went a bit further than the last round, though. Cohen and colleagues found that women have a variation in their genes, specifically on Chromosome 3, that may be why they score higher on the Eyes Test than men. That variation is not present in men.
"This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world," said Varun Warrier, a co-lead author of the study. "This is also the first study to attempt to correlate performance on this test with variation in the human genome. This is an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience and adds one more piece to the puzzle of what may cause variation in cognitive empathy."
In addition to Baron-Cohen and Warrier at Cambridge, researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Israel, the Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia, VU Medical Center in The Netherlands, Institut Pasteur in France and Penn State University in the U.S. also contributed to the study. It was published in the June edition of the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
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