I got an interesting email from one of my regular commenters who uses the handle “Randomizer”. He sends me a link to this post at Overcoming Bias which references an intriguing study that appeared in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin back in 2001: Gender Differences, Motivation, and Empathic Accuracy: When it Pays to Understand . The abstract:
Two studies of college students investigated the conditions under which women perform better than men on an empathic accuracy task (inferring the thoughts and feelings of a target person). The first study demonstrated that womenâ€™s advantage held only when women were given a task assessing their feelings of sympathy toward the target prior to performing the empathic accuracy task. The second study demonstrated that payments in exchange for accuracy improved the performance of both men and women and wiped out any difference between menâ€™s and womenâ€™s performances. Together, the results suggest that gender differences in empathic accuracy performance are the result of motivational differences and are not due to simple differences of ability between men and women.
Bold is mine.
For the second week in a row, someone sends me a link to promising research.
In plain English, the studies suggest that the notion that men lack the capacity for empathy — equivalent in degree to that more commonly displayed by women — is simply false. When motivated to put a dormant skill to use, the study suggests men can be every bit as intuitive as women. For a psych journal, the phrase “wiped out any difference” is very strong stuff indeed — it leaves no room for those who insist on men’s diminished capacity to love, to connect, and to care on which to stand.
So this raises the question that gets discussed at the Overcoming Bias site: if men can empathize every bit as well as women, why don’t they? Randomizer points to one of the commenters at OB, a fellow calling himself BD. BD writes:
(In the masculine) value system, empathy is not connected to caring for someone. Itâ€™s connected to believing that the person canâ€™t care for themselves Or believing that the person is a threat. â€œDonâ€™t ask me to treat you like a child. And donâ€™t ask me to treat you like a boss whose volatile ego I have to tip-toe around.â€
And there can be a â€œGolden Ruleâ€ thing going here as well. â€ He may not want to treat her â€œlike a childâ€ because he doesnâ€™t want to be treated â€œlike a childâ€ either.
With his peers, he can just relax and be himself. Male friendship and peerage is often a rough and tumble thing. Itâ€™s not to say that male friendship doesnâ€™t have its own rules. Its just that significant empathy is not part of that. When he is dealing with people he cares about, he tends to default to his most comfortable and peer-like relationship model, which happens to feature minimal empathy…
I think BD is right in one sense, in that I think we do indeed teach men to associate empathy with the burden of managing someone else’s fragile emotions — a boss who needs placating, or a child who can’t yet self-regulate. But if he’s implying that men and women have different but equally valid interpretations of the purpose of empathy, I think that’s much more problematic. In BD’s formulation, men are taught to see empathy as a tool to be used in a certain select set of scenarios, two in particular: first, when a reward is available, such as from a boss (or, in the case of the study we’re citing, cash-for-empathic display); two, when dealing with someone needier and more vulnerable than themselves, such as a child or the victim of a particular tragedy. It is not, in other words, a relationship tool — indeed, in “guyland”, a relationship in which empathy is not required is far more egalitarian than one in which it is needed.
Here’s how culturally constructed masculinity warps us all: for far too many men, empathy gets associated with manipulation and dependency rather than intimacy. The message seems to be: You can have my empathy, or you can have my respect as my equal. But you can’t have both. I don’t think that marks a “healthy difference” between men and women. It’s absurd to imagine that we can sustain healthy relationships when one sex believes empathy is a necessary component of all our interactions and another sex believes it to be an unpleasant tactic, a tool to be employed in a few instances, most of which involve a hierarchy of power and respect.
So the good news: one more bit of evidence that the full spectrum of human emotion is available to every member of the species, regardless of biology. The study reinforces the truth that the reason so many members of each sex utilize less than that full spectrum is attributable to socialization and choice, not to physiology. But we need to do more than say, “Huh, isn’t that interesting”. We need to recognize that this is one of those instances where ability translates to obligation; if men can empathize, than I think it’s fairly clear that they should do so far more often than they do.
Why? Merely to make wives and girlfriends and sisters happier? No, though making relationships better is nothing at which to sneeze. It’s that in the end, all great cruelty is, as Timothy Findley so famously said, a failure of the imagination. And the kind of imagination at which men so often fail is not the ability to imagine alternate universes or other fantastical things — it is the simpler failure to imagine what another person feels. When men regard that kind of imagination as a tool or a burden rather than as a gift and a responsibility, they become the chief architects of human suffering. To refuse to empathize is to be complicit, in a way either large or small, in the ongoing great crime.
I’ve often said that one of my two or three favorite novels ever written is Forster’s “Howard’s End.” I’m hardly alone in my deep love of the book and its world view. And I’m hardly alone in trying to remember, always remember, the simple epigraph of the text: “Only connect.” That is true of prose and passion, it is true of Americans and Haitians, and it is true of husbands and wives.
We can do this. And if there was ever an instant when ability leads inexorably to obligation, I think this is it.