New Study Suggests Women Can Read the Emotions of Others Better Than Men

A new study published in Molecular Psychiatry, suggests that our DNA influences our ability to read another person’s thoughts and emotions from looking at their eyes.

More than a decade ago, a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge developed a test of “cognitive empathy” called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test – or the Eyes Test, for short. This test revealed that people can interpret what others are feeling or thinking just by looking into their eyes. Researchers also found that some of us, particularly women, are better at this than others.

Now, the same team has partnered with 23andMe, along with a few scientists from Australia, France, and the Netherlands, to report new results of a new study that they’ve conducted on 89,000 people across the world, most whom were 23andMe customers who consented to participate. 

"This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world,” lead researcher, Varun Warrier said. “This is also the first study to attempt to correlate performance on this test with variation in the human genome. This is an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience and adds one more piece to the puzzle of what may cause variation in cognitive empathy."

In addition to confirming that women score higher on this test more often than men, the team also found that our genes influence performance on the Eyes Test – further identifying genetic variants on chromosome 3 in women that are associated with their ability to “read the mind in the eyes.”

"This new study demonstrates that empathy is partly genetic, but we should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience,” Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur, added.

Previous studies have found that people with anorexia and autism score lower on the Eyes Test. Researchers think this may be because autism involves both social and non-social traits, whereas this test only measures a social trait.

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