“I’ve always been able to understand how people feel and to see their perspective,” said Luisa Piette, who lives in Cool, California. “I feel their pain, whether it’s people going through a difficult divorce or an acquaintance who couldn’t pay their rent. I’ve been there to lend an ear and to empathize with them.”
Piette has a daughter and a granddaughter.
“I think women better understand what it feels like to put themselves in other people’s situations,” she told VOA.
Piette could be a textbook case on what studies on empathy have shown and what many people already suspect — women tend to be more empathetic than men.
A study released last month by researchers at the University of Cambridge surveyed tens of thousands of people worldwide. Like other studies, it indicated that women are much better than men at empathizing with others, regardless of any familial or cultural influences.
“Our findings provide some of the first evidence of the well-known phenomenon that women are, on average, more empathetic than men,” said David Greenberg, the study’s lead scientist.
The scientists sought to measure cognitive empathy, which is when someone intellectually understands what another person may be thinking or feeling and then predicts how they will react.
For example, a friend tells you they are upset because they had an unpleasant disagreement with someone. If you have cognitive empathy, you will understand how your friend feels by putting yourself in their shoes.
The Cambridge study was the largest to date on the topic. Participants totaled about 306,000 men and women from 57 countries, including Egypt, India, Croatia and Saudi Arabia. On average, women showed much higher cognitive empathy in 36 countries and a similar amount to men in 21 others. In no country did men show greater empathy.
“This study clearly shows broadly consistent gender differences across countries, languages and age groups,” said Carrie Allison, director of research strategy at Cambridge University.
The authors of the report point out the results are just averages, with some men being better at empathizing than some women.
Sandra Murphy, a social scientist in Takoma Park, Maryland, said she doesn’t fit the stereotypical image.
“I’m more analytical, and my husband, who is a lawyer, is more empathetic,” she said.
Jack Murphy agreed.
“I tend to be more sensitive to people’s emotions and feelings,” he said.
Researchers found that empathetic capacities typically rise during adolescence and decrease during adulthood.
Olivia Mickelson, a high school student from Fairfax, Virginia, said, “I think my girlfriends are a lot more understanding and empathetic than my guy friends.”
To measure participants’ cognitive empathy, researchers used what they call the Eyes Test to measure a person’s ability to recognize someone else’s mental or emotional state.
Study participants examined photos of people’s various facial expressions and focused on what they thought a person may be thinking or feeling by looking at the area around their eyes. Participants were then given a limited list of words to describe what they saw.
“The results of the study prove what I’ve seen in my practice about women being more empathetic,” said therapist Cynthia Catchings, executive director of the Women’s Emotional Wellness Center in Alexandria, Virginia. “I think a lot of it has to be with upbringing, with women experiencing more socialization and many having close friends who are women.”
Sara Hodges, professor and head of the psychology department at the University of Oregon, agrees.
“The reason why people think their mother or best friend is empathetic is because they seem to know what they are thinking and feeling and would act with their interests at heart,” said Hodges, who is also director of the University of Oregon’s Social Cognition Lab where research includes empathy.
Hodges said the lab’s research, as well as other studies, appear to indicate gender differences in cognitive empathy may stem from social as well as biological factors.
“Women are better at decoding nonverbal, emotional communication,” she said.
At the same time, she thinks Eyes Test studies have their limitations in measuring empathy, a complex psychological phenomenon.
“They may not necessarily reflect that people are seeing empathy,” Hodges said, adding that empathy can be used for altruistic reasons or to influence others.
“Some people may be better at reading people’s facial expressions and are not necessarily doing that for compassionate reasons. They may be trying to get someone to do something they may not want to do,” she said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated Sara Hodges' title. VOA regrets then error.