Is Empathy Sexy?
New research suggests that, for some of us, good listening is a turn-on.
Posted Dec 17, 2012
Years ago, when I was a freshman, still hungrily exploring campus life, I met an unassuming young woman at a party. There wasn't anything especially striking about her, at least to my eyes—she even wore neutral colors of black and gray—and many people might have described her as plain. But as she asked me who I was and what I studied and where I'd been raised—"Oh, you grew up in Connecticut? English and psychology, huh, how'd you end up in both?"—I felt, for the next hour and half, as if she were hanging on my every word. She didn't just listen; she seemed to understand what I felt at a depth I'd rarely encountered before. And the more we spoke, the more alluring she became. To say her empathy was comforting would have been an understatement; it was exciting.
As I sit and listen to clients whose empathy seems to have all but vanished for their partner—people who wonder aloud, "Where has the passion gone?" or, even more gut- wrenchingly, "Have we fallen out of love?"—I often think back to my experience with that woman. Are we more excited by people who seem to care about us? Could my experience be typical? Can being a good, caring listener feed the flames of desire?
Previous research offers some clues to the answer. It's abundantly clear, for example, that when we feel safe sharing deeply personal thoughts and feelings with our partners and they actually care about what we say—mindlessly nodding and saying "I see" won't cut it—we're most apt to feel happy and intimate in our relationships. So it's not without reason that our movies and novels are rife with images of heroes and heroines who begin by sharing their deepest fears and most cherished dreams and end by collapsing, passionately, into their listener's arms (or beds). Still, while this sort of sharing and empathy seems to strengthen the bonds and deepen desire in existing relationships, it isn't at all clear that being a caring listener translates into excitement in the dating world.
That's why, recently, psychologists Gurit Birnbaum of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel and Harry Reis of the University of Rochester decided to search for the empathy effect at the beginning of relationships. Across three different studies, they examined the impact that feeling cared about and understood by a listener might have on a subject's desire for that person. But they also did something else rather clever. They assessed each person's attachment style (the degree to which people feel comfortable being close to, and depending on, others).
Why did they do this? The researchers suspected that anxiously and securely attached people, who seek out and enjoy intimacy, would be turned on by empathy, while avoidantly attached people, who get a little squeamish about closeness, would be turned off by a caring listener.
In the first study, they randomly paired 72 heterosexual undergraduates into opposite-sex pairs, asked the "disclosers" to share a recent, personal negative event (say, failing an exam) and then instructed the responders to "react naturally," giving them free rein to show as much or as little empathy as they were capable of. The disclosers then rated their listener's performance on a scale with items like, "[He/she] really listened to me," as well as their sex appeal ("To what extent would you be interested in having sex with [him/her]?").
Fascinatingly, only the secure and anxious listeners were excited by the empathy of their partners. The more caring their partners seemed, the less interested avoidants were in having sex with them. In other words, people who avoid intimacy are less attracted to a caring partner!
Which seems like a great thing, right? Wouldn't those of us who enjoy intimacy prefer that our empathy-phobic dates take a hike?
Well, there's a wrinkle to this. The researchers had one other theory they wanted to test. They suspected that men would get all hot and bothered by good listeners, while women would be thoroughly unimpressed by the guys that gave their rapt attention. Why? Their logic was based on evolutionary psychology: Men, the theory goes, see a chance for sex in pretty much any positive sign, making kindness—or hello, or eye contact, or gesundheit—a big honking green light. Women, on the other hand, choosier by nature because eggs are rare, prefer a dominant guy who isn't all touchy-feely or "submissive" because alpha males tend to have the best genes. (Call this "the nice guys finish last" hypothesis.) The experimenters found no evidence that gender mattered in the first study, so they decided to run two more. They swapped out real responders with two fake ones (one man, one woman), leaving them free to control how responsive the same listener appeared to be with all the subjects.
In study two, 52 unsuspecting undergrads chatted over IM with an opposite-sex, trained responder who gave canned responses by IM in one of two randomly chosen conditions: 1) responsive (e.g., "you must have gone through a very difficult time"); 2) unresponsive (e.g.,"doesn't sound so bad to me"). In the third study, the experimenters conducted the interaction face to face, again with fake respondents, who either lent their listeners a caring ear or a decidedly tone deaf one. As before, only the secure and anxious participants found empathy sexy. But this time, the researchers found gender effects: Men were turned on by empathy; women weren't.
So should men avoid being too caring? Tread carefully with that one, guys. Even the researchers themselves highlight the importance of the central and most robust finding: Whether or not people find empathy sexy seems to depend, to a large extent, on whether or not they find intimacy sexy (i.e., their attachment style). And while the experimenters eventually found the gender difference they went looking for, it's important to keep in mind that it only emerged when they stopped using authentic reactions. Maybe women are subtly turned off by canned, artificial kindness. Or perhaps, as the researchers themselves admit, they're less willing to say they find empathy sexy because, historically, they're less likely to admit they find anything sexy (the theory being it's still a bit un-ladylike for women to openly enjoy sex).
While a good deal of clinical research supports the authors’ main finding, I couldn’t find a single study involving authentic relationships that arrived at their second conclusion—that women, in general, find empathic men less attractive. In fact, they all suggest the opposite; the feeling of security fostered by empathy seems to increase sexual desire for men and women, alike.
And that means the jury's still out on whether or not non-avoidant women in actual dating situations are turned off by caring, male listeners. In the meantime, the clearest take home lesson seems to be this: If you want a caring partner, your best bet is to be caring, and see who sticks around for more.
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A version of this article previously appeared in the Huffington Post
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