William Ickes

William Ickes

Everyday Mind Reading

Where Is Women's Intuition?

Women don't have more empathic ability; they just try harder.

Posted Jan 28, 2009

When my colleagues and I began doing research on empathic accuracy (everyday mind reading) about 20 years ago, we expected to find that women would be more accurate than men at inferring the specific content of other people's thoughts and feelings.  This expectation was based on the cultural stereotype of "women's intuition."

Surprisingly, however, when we tested for evidence of this expected gender difference, we kept failing to find any support for it.  In seven straight studies, the average empathic accuracy score of our female participants was not significantly different from the average score of our male participants.

So where was the evidence for the presumed superiority of "women's intuition"?  We didn't find it in a study of the initial interactions of opposite-sex strangers.  We didn't find it in a study of the initial interactions of same-sex (female-female versus male-male) strangers.  We didn't find it in a study of all-male groups versus all-female groups.  And it failed to appear regardless of whether the study had been conducted in Texas, in North Carolina, or in New Zealand.

But just when we had begun to conclude that the stereotype of "women's intuition" was a cultural myth, a very strange thing happened.  In the next three studies that we conducted in our lab at the University of Texas at Arlington, we found a significant gender difference favoring the female perceivers.  Seven studies in a row with no gender difference, and now three studies showing a difference.  What was going on here?

When my graduate student colleague, Tiffany Graham, compared the methods of all 10 studies to see if she could find a change in the procedure that might help us understand what was going on, it took her less than a day to find the answer.  In the first seven studies, it wasn't clear to the participants that their empathic ability was being assessed.  However, in the last three studies, we had changed the procedure.  Each time the participant had written down their inference about what the other person was thinking or feeling at a designated point in the interaction, we then asked the participant to rate how accurate they thought their empathic inference was.  In retrospect, it seemed likely that the effect of asking them to rate the accuracy of their empathic inferences was to make clear to them that we were measuring their empathic ability--an ability at which women (according to the women's intuition stereotype) are supposed to excel.

To check the plausibility of this interpretation, we conducted a new study using the "old" procedure, and the gender difference again failed to appear.  We then conducted another new study using the "new" procedure (the one requiring self-ratings of empathic accuracy) and the significant gender difference re-appeared.  Aha!  We could "turn off" the gender difference by removing the cue that signalled that this was an empathic ability task, and we could "turn on" the same difference by restoring that cue.

This pattern of results suggested to us that although the average woman doesn't have more empathic ability than the average man, we could create a heightened level of motivation in the women by reminding them that the task was one in which women should excel.  When we re-analyzed our findings with this hypothesis in mind, we found strong evidence that the gender difference we had occasionally observed was indeed based on differential motivation rather than differential ability.  Women, on average, don't have greater empathic ability than men, but they do try harder to live up to their stereotype in situations in which they are reminded of it.

At this point, two creative researchers at the University of Oregon, Kristi Klein and Sara Hodges, decided to conduct a study in which they would cue both men and women that they were working on an empathy-related task.  However, to see if they could bring men's motivation up to the level of the women's in the study, they paid the participants in one condition of their study to be as empathically accurate as possible! 

What did they find?  In the condition where no payment was offered but the participants were reminded that they were working on an empathy-relevant task, the women did significantly better than the men (just as my colleagues and I had found when we provided the participants with a similar cue).  However, when the same reminder was given but the participants were also paid to be as accurate as possible, the men's performance matched that of the women, suggesting that Klein and Hodges had found an incentive (money) that would motivate men as strongly as the women's intuition stereotype was able to motivate the women.

As Klein and Hodges concluded at the end of the article reporting their research, men as a group aren't poor "everyday mind readers"; they are simply unmotivated ones.  If you want men to show you how well they can compete with women in "reading" other people's minds, just pay them for it!

For a more complete account of this research, see Chapter 6 of Everyday Mind Reading, by William Ickes (Prometheus Books, 2003).