Empathy is the ability to understand and share in the feelings and emotions of another person. Empathy is not limited to negative emotions, but includes positive and neutral feelings. The ability to empathize is connected to a person’s own capacity to feel and identify with their emotions.
Most popular opinions on differences in empathy between the genders hold that women are naturally more empathic than men. Women are traditionally and biologically the nurturing sex; women take care of others emotionally, as well physically and psychologically. But has the conclusion that women are more empathic been demonstrated on a large scale? Yes, but not in the way that most people would think. The greater empathic ability of women is likely not biologically determined, but social in origin.
A large number of studies across cultures and time periods have focused on gender differences in empathy. Most of these studies draw similar results: women show a greater capacity to identify with and understand others’ emotions. Women instinctively mirror emotional expressions more than men do. They are also more able to identify what a person is feeling. One study on brain activity and feelings found that while women identified the emotions they saw, their brain’s reflected these emotions: neural centers associated with emotions were activated. They could understand a person’s feelings in many settings — riding a bike, playing, walking. On the other hand, while men could sometimes correctly recognize the feelings, men’s brain activity indicated they weren’t identifying with these feelings themselves: they weren’t empathizing. Instead they were simply using memory and pattern recognition to determine the emotions from those they had seen before.
One may be tempted to think these studies show that gender differences in empathy are innate. But they don’t. These studies also show that men and women do not consistently differ in their ability to recognize emotions, most importantly, their own emotions. The first step towards empathizing is being able to identify emotions. This signifies that men and women are born with equal ability to empathize but these abilities begin to differ later on in life. The brain can reflect exposure because it is plastic: it changes as a result of experience. In other words, the life experiences of women may be causing them to become more empathic, or those of men may be causing them to become less empathic, or both.
The main conclusion to be drawn from studies and surveys on empathy is that everyone is born with the capacity for empathy. People show differences in empathy not due to biology, but because their life has (or has not) been favorable to the ability to empathize.