Empathy, logic and gender

Do men and women really think differently, and what does it have to do with autism?
20 November 2018

Interview with 

Varun Warrier, University of Cambridge


The 1992 book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” was a bestseller for US author John Gray. Admittedly it was all about relationships, but, at its core, was the claim that males and females think differently. Put another way, psychologists have suggested in two theories that women tend to be better empathisers, men tend to be better systemisers, and autistic people tend have a brain that’s an extreme example of the male-type. But those claims were based on studies of fewer than 100 people. So now scientists have repeated the analysis on a very large sample. But what did they find? Chris Smith heard from Varun Warrier, one of the authors on the new study…

Varun - These two theories look at how men and women think about certain things. So the first theory is called the “empathising-systemising theory of sex differences” and according to this theory we can look at two particular domains: Empathy, which is the ability to recognise what someone is thinking or feeling, and the other one is called systemising, identifying and recognising patterns. What this theory suggests is that men on average are better than women on systemising, and women on average are better on empathising. The second theory deals with autistic individuals. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition where individuals typically have difficulties in social interactions and unusually restricted interests. This theory which is called “the extreme male brain theory of autism” suggests that autistic individuals tend to be better at systemising and poor at empathy compared to the typical population.

Chris - So what did you set out to test?

Varun - So the previous studies had examined these two theories using relatively small sample sizes. We wanted to see how robust these results are. So we got data from approximately 650,000 individuals, which also included data from 36,000 individuals who had been diagnosed with autism and all of them filled out these two measures of empathy and systemising.

Chris - Can you just explain, how do you work out how empathic I am? How do you work out to what extent I systemise?

Varun - One way is using a self report measure, which asks questions like how much do you agree or disagree with particular statements. So statements include: “People have often told me that what I say is rude.” In this particular study we use ten such questions. Similarly we use ten such questions which maps self reported systemising; questions like “ I often notice small details that other people don't.”

Chris - And you're now bringing to the party enormous numbers of people that you've been able to study. You say you know it's more than 650,000 who've been studied isn't it? What trends emerge?

Varun - Well, what we see is that on average, typical men will score slightly higher, but statistically significantly higher than typical women on the self report measure of systemising and typical women on average score slightly higher than typical men on the self report measure of empathy. When we dig a bit deeper and look at autistic individuals, we see that on average autistic individuals, regardless of their sex, tend to score higher on this test of systemising and tend to score slightly lower on this measure of empathy compared to the typical population.

Chris - Have you broken it down by age? Is this something that people grow into, from a child growing up, or is it an innate thing that's present from the minute an individual’s born, as a boy or a girl, they're going to develop into these traits?

Varun - Yeah. So we looked at some sort of correlates of age with scores on these tests. We know that both empath and systemising are partly genetic, so there is some innate component to it, but this is only a fraction. So genetics explain approximately a third of the total variance in both systemising and empathy. So there is considerable other factors that might contribute to, you know, typical variance in empathy and systemising, and we don't really know what these factors are. It is very likely that, you know, environmental factors such as societal norms do indeed shape empathy and systemising, and certainly people's awareness of empathetic or systemising they are.

Chris - What are the implications of this now, because this basically adds additional weight to the theory you come up with 20 years ago but where does it leave us? Where next?

Varun - Going forward we also need to understand where these typical sex differences emerge. Do they come from environmental factors? If they are from environmental factors, what policies can we have in place to, sort of, minimise these sex differences. How can we encourage more women into STEM, how can we have policies in place which encourage more people into fields of systemising and equally how can we encourage more men to be more empathetic? So that's something that we really need to dive in to.


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