Empathy and Stress – Women Are the Stronger Sex

I learned many of life’s great lessons while watching Audrey Hepburn movies with my grandmother. To this day, I cannot hear the word “empathy” without being reminded of the first time I heard that word in the movie Funny Face. Empathy is difficult to study, owing to its many dimensions and facets, but it is essential to human interaction. And new evidence suggests that women may be better at it than men.

In the movie, Audrey Hepburn plays Jo, a shy bookkeeper who wants to spend her days studying the theories of empathicalism. When Fred Astaire (as Dick Avery) asks her about her philosophy, she explains: “Sympathy is to understand what someone feels; empathy is to project your imagination so that you can actually feel what the other person is feeling; you put yourself in the other person’s place.”

Recently, researchers examined empathy in males and females under stressful conditions. When the men were stressed, they were less able to engage in socially appropriate and empathetic interactions with other people; men became more egocentric when stressed. Women, on the other hand, were more empathetic toward others when they themselves were under stress.

For the study, which is published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, the participants were placed in moderately stressful situations in a laboratory, including speaking in public with little preparation or performing mental arithmetic tasks, that mimicked the type of stress humans can encounter on a daily basis. Once stressed, the participants were asked to imitate movements, recognize emotions, or make a judgment about the perspective of another person. Stress worsened the men’s performances in all three areas, but the women’s scores improved.

Stress seems problematic when we are acutely dealing with a challenging situation, but stress actually has a positive function: it makes us recruit additional resources when faced with a difficult situation. We can either reduce the internal load of the stress or seek external support to cope with the stress. The authors of the current study suggest that the easiest response to stress is to become more egocentric and self-centered, which reduces the internal emotional and cognitive workload. And, the more egocentric a person is, the less empathetic he or she becomes.

The fact that women were more empathetic when stressed might be explained in two ways (though neither theory has been proven). First, women may have a keen understanding that the better they interact with other people, the more external support they receive. Therefore, women are more likely to expend emotional energy when interacting with other people and apply appropriate social strategies, even when they are stressed – something akin to catching more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Additionally, the hormone oxytocin may play a role in social behaviors. We already know that oxytocin is important in relationship building, pair bonding, and maternal behaviors, but in one study, under stressful conditions, women had higher levels of oxytocin than men.

Empathy involves emotional, autonomic, cognitive, and regulatory processes. Some information is known about which regions of the brain are involved in empathy, but the timing and sequencing of the activities are unclear. Empathy could even be partly attributed to misinterpretation of perceptual information. People with mental illness and those who have suffered stroke or other brain injury can lose some empathetic abilities. It is clear that we do not understand the “how” of empathy, but the “why” and “what” are pretty obvious. Empathy is a necessary part of human interaction. In order to work and socialize and cooperate with other people, we must be able, at least sometimes, to put ourselves in their shoes – take on their perspective, feel what they feel, and act the way they act. Sometimes, we will be stressed, but we still need to do it. (Men – listen up!)

This current study provides no direction for how to use these findings to improve our own social interaction; it is merely a report of interesting results that remind us of the differences between men and women when it comes to what the professionals call “prosocial behavior.” That is, empathy is just one of the behaviors in which we need to engage to benefit other people and society at large, and women seem to have the upper hand in this case.


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Image via Lorimer Images / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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