Under the Hood

The Friend Zone: Empathetic Teen Boys Have 1.8 More Friendships With Girls

man-963182_640 Empathetic teenage boys have more friends who are girls. Pixabay, public domain

Some people believe platonic relationships among members of the opposite sex to be few and far between. Scientists have even suggested that it’s impossible for men and women to be just friends because attraction will inevitably get in the way. But there are also signs that relationships between people of different sexes are more complicated than our female and male gender stereotypes would have us believe.

In a recent study, published in the Journal of Personality, researchers from Australian Catholic University analyzed how likely teenage girls and boys are to become friends with members of the opposite sex. While it appears that teenage boys who show empathy have a better chance of becoming friends with girls of the same age, it doesn’t seem to work the other way around for teenage girls.

"Friends are essential to positive adolescent development,” said Professor Joseph Ciarrochi, from the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University, in a statement. “It's well established that in addition to providing companionship, close friendships promote the development of interpersonal skills, learning, and growth. Having friends has also been linked with lower rates of depression and to people feeling good about themselves.”

Ciarrochi and his colleagues recruited 993 male and 977 female students in Queensland and New South Wales at an average age of 15.7 years. These students were asked to nominate five each of their closest male and female friends. They were also asked to either agree or disagree with the following statements: "when someone is feeling down, I can usually understand how they feel," and "I can often understand how people are feeling even before they tell me."

Using the Friendship Subscale of the Student Social Support Scale, the research team asked students to pick empathetic behaviors each friend engaged in, such as offering advice, help, or comfort.

Their findings showed that girls were more likely to nominate a male friend if he was considered empathetic. Empathetic teenage boys attracted an average of 1.8 more female friends compared to boys with low levels of empathy. Empathetic teenage girls, on the other hand, were rarely picked by their male counterparts. Although they didn’t seem to attract many friends of the opposite sex, empathetic girls still reported an overall feeling of friendship support.

"The more friendship nominations a boy received from either boys or girls, the more they felt supported by their friends; the number of friendship nominations received by girls, in contrast, had no effect on their felt support by friends,” Ciarrochi added. “Regardless of the quantity of friendship nominations, empathy was linked to more supportive friendships for both males and females."

Empathy is a trait most of us possess (sorry sociopaths) and it’s key to social interactions. It’s hard to relate with someone who couldn’t walk a mile in your shoes. However, too much of anything can be bad, empathy included. Neuroscientists from the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany recently examined people who empathize easily and their ability to actually grasp another person’s thoughts and intentions. They found that people with higher levels of empathy had a hard time understanding others on a cognitive level.

Source: Conigrave J, Kiuru N, Kashdan T, Sahdra B, Parker P, Ciarrochi J. When Empathy Matters: The Role of Sex and Empathy in Close Friendships. Journal of Personality . 2016.

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