Boys Don't Cry: Men and Women Feel Empathy Over Different Things

West Side Story was boring.
Psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner approached audience members after they saw either The Vagina Monologues or West Side Story. Still from the 1961 movie. Seven Arts Productions

It's a common trope to hear that men are unfeeling pigs. It's why, when a couple watches The Notebook, the end leaves the girlfriend in tears and the boyfriend half-asleep. But a new study has debunked that idea, finding that men are not incapable of empathy, but that men and women feel empathy over different things.

Psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner approached audience members after they saw either The Vagina Monologues or West Side Story. Between the four performances at which they approached spectators, they surveyed 173 women and 86 men. The questionnaires that survey participants needed to fill out specified four moments from the show that were chosen because of the severely negative emotional content. For example, one scene selected from West Side Story was (do spoiler alerts need to be doled out if the movie came out 50 years ago and is based on a famous Shakespearean play?) the one in which Maria watches Tony die.

Spectators needed to answer five questions about each scene. "What emotion was the character in question feeling in this scene? How strongly did he or she feel this emotion? What emotion were you experiencing during this scene? How strongly did you feel it?...How sorry did you feel for this character in this scene?" Each question was answered on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being "not at all" and 7 being "extremely."

Researchers were looking for the following classifications of empathy: "understanding the emotions of another (cognitive empathy), feeling the emotions of another (emotional empathy), and experiencing a negative emotional reaction to another's plight (personal distress)." They found that, for women, cognitive empathy - knowing that someone else was in pain - was enough. But men, who were aged 13 to 83, needed to personally feel sad or distressed in order to feel empathy for characters.

"It is often assumed that emotional empathy leads directly to sympathy," Goldstein and Winner write in the Empirical Studies of the Arts. "Our findings show this is true for males, but not for females. For females, sympathy was based more on their judgments of the level of the character's pain."

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