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Gender and Empathy

In general, I don’t put a lot of stock into the claims of “innate” gender differences in psychology. In her excellent book, Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine does a great job dismantling many of these claims, including those about how the brains of men and women are substantively different.

Nevertheless, it would be hard to deny the existence of any reliable gender differences in the world of psychology. It’s just not likely to be a case of “hardwired” differences. Instead, I’m partial to the approach taken by Social Role Theory. According to this approach, gender differences arise from the beliefs that people have about gender and the roles that each gender often plays in society.

In other words, we grow up learning about how men and women should be different, and we end up playing out those expectations, resulting in real gender differences. These differences, however, don’t necessarily reflect innate differences.

Gender and Empathy

Gender and empathyOne gender difference that seems pretty reliable is in empathy. Empathy (which is different than sympathy) is about feeling “compassion and concern for others undergoing negative experiences.” Oftentimes empathy involves being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and experiencing what they must be experiencing.

Data have shown that on average, men exhibit less empathic concern for others than women do. In fact, this can emerge pretty early in development. Some research has studied kids as young as four years old who were shown a video of a person in an unfortunately situation, which was intended to prompt an empathic response. Even at this young age, girls were more adept than boys at feeling the vicarious emotion of the person in the video.

Some have suggested that these gender differences are also the result of socialization—like Social Role Theory would predict. The idea is that girls are brought up with a communal orientation and an expectation to respond to the emotional needs of others. Men, by contrast, are raised with a more individualistic, competitive focus. In support of this idea, one study showed that gender differences in empathic responses are more pronounced when people think about their gender and the expectations that come with it.

Gender and Charitable Giving

Charity and Charitable GivingWhat does any of this have to do with charity? (Yes, I know…I enjoy writing about the psychology of charity [example 1, example 2, example 3]) Well, one big theory of helpfulness says that empathy is key for altruism. In other words, the drive to help a fellow human in a time of need depends on empathy. If I have more compassion and concern for you and your negative situation, I’m more likely to try to help you.

So if women tend to have higher empathy than men, they should also be more helpful, right? Yep.

One of the most reliable findings in the psychology of charitable giving is that women are more likely to donate money to charity than men. In a big review of demographic factors in charitable giving, researchers identified a bunch of studies showing this gender difference.

Now there are plenty of reasons why women might be more charitable than men, but one of them is likely to be the empathy differences. One recent study provided results supporting the idea that women are more likely to give time and money to charity because they are more empathic.

Getting Men to Give

vintage-1291644_640Okay, so if this is the way it is—women have more empathy, so they’re more altruistic—is that the end of the story? Charities should just target women and leave it at that? Obviously not.

In a recent study, psychologists tested the idea that men could be nudged to give more if the charity reframed its approach slightly. That is, instead of focusing on the sadness of poverty and the dire circumstances some people live in, maybe they can appeal to self-interest. If giving to charity can be seen less as altruism and more as what’s good for “me,” perhaps that would reduce the gender gap.

They designed a version of a charity’s message that appealed to self-interest by emphasizing that “everyone, including the individual targeted by the message, suffers the effects of poverty and unemployment.” This way, donating doesn’t just help people in poverty—it helps you, too!

The results show that this version of the charity’s message increased men’s likelihood of giving money to a poverty-relief organization.

Gender, Empathy, & Charity

In sum, these studies speak to a reliable set of gender differences in empathy and altruism. It’s worth pointing out, though, that these aren’t huge differences. It’s not as if all women are caught up in a constant stream of empathic concern while all men are careless self-interested jerks. Instead, it’s a consistent difference in average responses for people of each gender.

It raises interesting questions, though, about where these differences actually come from and whether they can be addressed at the root cause. What does it take for men to become more motivated by a true concern for others? Or are men doomed to a life of acting purely out of self-interest?


Feature Image: “For the Poor Charity Box Basilica of St. Adelbert Grand Rapids December 29, 201016” by Steven Depolo via Flickr –  Licensed under CC BY 2.0, cropped

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