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Are Women Really More Compassionate?

Some people argue that women are kinder, but what does the data really show?

Yesterday, journalists at Huffington Post Live asked me to comment on whether women are more compassionate than men. Scientists in general tend to cringe at any strong black-and-white statements of this kind since we know there is no data to support such strong claims. If you ask a neuroscientist to distinguish a male from a female brain, for example, s/he would have a difficult time doing so. Although differences have been detected (for example, women appear to make greater use of both hemispheres of the brain and therefore have a slightly thicker corpus callosum—the part of the brain that bridges the two hemispheres), the differences are subtle and there is no single area of the brain that we can say clearly distinguishes a male brain from a female brain.

Compassion is Innate

Moreover, whether they are researching animals or humans, males or females, scientists find that compassion is innate and instinctual across the board. As I discussed at length in my previous post, research with animals and humans shows that we naturally have an impulse to help others who are suffering. This tendency, that Dacher Keltner has coined the "compassionate instinct," seems to have ensured our survival. Research by Stanford University's Robert Sapolsky suggests that this instinct is linked to thriving and improved reproduction in primates. In other words, compassion is natural and no gender differences have emerged across these studies.

Men's and Women’s Brains On Compassion

One brain imaging study, however, found that men and women appear to differ with regards to their brain activation during compassion. This study by Roberto Mercadillo of the National Autonomous University of Mexico compared men and women's brain activation while they were experiencing compassion. He asked participants to lie in an fMRI scanner and showed them sad images meant to elicit compassion. Both men and women reported experiencing the same levels of compassion in response to the photographs. However, the regions of the brain activated in men were different than those in women. While this study does not suggest that one gender experiences compassion more than the other, it suggests that the genders may differ in how compassion is experienced and expressed.

Are Differences in Compassion Innate or Learned?

In self-report questionnaires, women do, in general, report experiencing more compassion in their lives than men report doing. There may be a number of reasons why they report it more. Differences in compassion expression in men and women are probably in large part due to different socialization processes. We know that our brain is "plastic" and that it changes in response to experience. A large body of research has shown that men and women have very different experiences and that they are socialized extremely differently as of infancy. Think about girls who are handed dolls and baby carriages to play with (suggesting nurturing and caring behaviors) and boys who are handed superheroes and toy soldiers (suggesting fighting, and protecting behaviors). When girls (or women) cry it is seen as normal but if boys (or men) do, they are often taught crying is a sign of weakness and is not “manly.” How much of differences observed in adulthood are due to years of socialization?

Socialization may in turn have impacted how men and women learned to communicate emotions such as kindness and compassion. In a study of human touch by Dacher Keltner, participants were asked to communicate different emotions by touching another participant's hand. They were also asked to guess what emotion was being communicated when their partner touched their hand. The participants could not see each but guessed each other’s emotion simply through a touch of the hand. When both partners were men, the odds of them guessing that the emotion being communicated was sympathy was no greater than chance. When at least one of the participants was a woman, however, participants were more accurate. Since sympathy is seen as a more “feminine” trait more acceptable for women to express, women may have learned to both communicate and recognize it more easily.

Another reason women may have learned to express compassion more easily emerges from the work of Shelley Taylor, at UCLA, who found that men and women respond differently to stress. These differences may have certainly have trained women to express compassion more explicitly. Taylor found that the "fight or flight" response is characteristic of men whereas women tend toward a different tendency: "tend and befriend." Women faced with a stressful situation are more likely to respond by socializing, bonding with others and seeking protection and nurturance within a community. These tendencies may have been evolutionarily adaptive since we have evolved in communities where women’s primary responsibility was raising and protecting offspring who needed protection while men traditionally engaged in hunting and warfare. A new study, however, suggest that men, too, also can respond to stress through social bonding.

Finally, women may at times have higher levels of "oxytocin" - sometimes called the "cuddle hormone" or "love hormone" because it is linked to bonding, social connection and monogamy. Oxytocin is produced during sex for both men and women but is particularly important during childbirth. It is produced in women during labor and lactation in women and is believed to trigger bonding and nurturing behaviors.

Men and Women – Same Level of Compassion, Different Look?

Rather than suggesting that these tendencies might have made women more compassionate than men, I would argue that they would simply have altered the expression of compassion. While women's expression involved nurturing and bonding, men's compassion was expressed through protecting and ensuring survival. Compassion just took on a different "look and feel" depending on our evolutionary needs for survival.

One reason we might think that women are more compassionate than men is that we think of compassion in only one way: nurturance, kindness, softness, gentleness, and emotional warmth. We think of compassion in mostly feminized terms. It may be that women are conditioned to think of compassion as involving caring and nurturing and that, for men, it takes on a fiercer more protective appearance. From my work with veterans and active-duty personnel, I have seen deep expressions of compassion that do not have nurturing and maternal features. Think of the many heroic acts that happen daily in which people throw themselves into dangerous situations to help others. These are fierce, courageous and even aggressive forms of compassion.

Generalizations are generally never accurate. We often all engage in both nurturing and fierce expressions of compassion. Think of a mother who yells and roughly pulls her child away from oncoming traffic (fierce compassion) or military service-members who hold each other in grief after the loss of a friend (nurturing compassion). Love, compassion, kindness are natural to all of us in their varied forms of expression.

Rather than asking whether men or women are kinder or compassionate, the question should rather be: What are the myriad beautiful forms in which compassion expresses itself?


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© 2014 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.

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