2011. Vol.2, No.6, 574-578
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.26088
Are Gender Differences in Empathy Due to Differences in
Emotional Reactivity?
Linda Rueckert, Brandon Branch, Tiffany Doan
Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, USA.
Received May 17th, 2011; revised June 21st, 2011; accepted July 29th, 2011.
The purpose of this study was to determine whether gender differences in empathy reflect differences in self-
rated emotion, and whether they are influenced by the nature of the target of the empathy (friend or enemy). 24
men and 36 women were asked to rate how much happiness, sadness, and anger they would feel if each of ten
scenarios happened to themselves, and how they would feel if it happened to a friend or enemy. Overall, women
rated themselves as feeling more happiness and sadness than men, whether the event happened to themselves, or
to a friend or enemy. This suggests gender differences in self-reported empathy may be due to differences in
general emotional responsiveness. An empathy score was computed by subtracting, for each scenario, the rating
for the other person from the rating for self. Women showed a greater difference between friend and enemy than
Keywords: Empathy, Sex Differences, Emotion
Are Gender Differences in Empathy Due to
Differences in Emotional Reactivity?
In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in studies
addressing empathy, the ability to feel and understand the
thoughts and emotions of others. This has likely been driven at
least in part by the growing field of social neuroscience and
technological advances that allow us to study the neural basis of
empathy to a much greater extent than was possible before.
The most common method of measuring empathy is self-
report questionnaires (e.g. Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004;
Davis, 1983; Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972). One of the most
robust and reliable results obtained from self-report studies is a
gender difference, with women reporting greater empathy than
men (e.g. Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004; Davis, 1983;
Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983; Mehrabian, Young, & Sato, 1988;
Rueckert & Naybar, 2008). However, this female superiority
has not been found as often using other measures of empathy
that are presumably more objective, leading Eisenberg and
Lennon (1983) to suggest that the differences found using
self-report may be due, at least in part, to demand characteris-
tics. Evidence for demand characteristics have also been re-
ported by oth ers (Ickes, Gesn, & Graham, 2000).
Nevertheless, there have been a few studies that reported
similar gender differences using more objective measures.
Dimberg and Lundquist (1990) found that women showed
greater facial mimicry, as measured by electromyogram, to
photos of emotional faces. Chapman, Baron-Cohen, Auyeung,
Knickmeyer, Taylor, & Hackett (2006) reported a negative
correlation between fetal testosterone levels and empathy in
children age 6 to 8. In an event-related potential study, Fuku-
shima and Hiraki (2006) found that women, but not men, ex-
hibited medial-frontal negativity when their opponent in a game
experienced a loss. Men exhibited this response only when they
themselves experienced the loss.
Until very recently there were no neuroimaging studies of
gender differences in empathy. In fact, a recent meta-analysis
of fMRI studies of empathy for pain found no evidence for
overall gender differences (Lamm, Decety, & Singer, 2011).
However, some studies have found significant gender differ-
ences under specific conditions. For example, Singer, Seymour,
O’Doherty, Stephan, Dolan, & Frith (2006) used functional
MRI to measure brain activity while participants received mild
electric shocks or witnessed a confederate receiving a similar
shock. They manipulated participants’ feelings toward the con-
federates by having them play a “prisoner dilemma” type of
game. One of the confederates played the game fairly and the
other played unfairly. They found that both men and women
showed bilateral activation in pain-related areas of the brain
(anterior insula and anterior cingulate) when they received a
shock, and when they witnessed a “fair” confederate receive a
shock. However, only women showed this activation when the
“unfair” confederate was shocked. Results reported by Cheng,
Chen, Lin, Chou, and Decety (2010) also support the idea that
empathic responses may differ based on the target of the empa-
thy. They found greater activation in the insula and anterior
cingulate when participants saw hands and feet in painful posi-
tions and were asked to imagine that the picture depicted a
loved one, compared to when they were asked to imagine that it
depicted a stranger. However, they did not examine gender
Many psychologists differentiate between emotional empa-
thy, or the tendency to feel the same emotion as another person,
and cognitive empathy, which is the knowledge and under-
standing of another person’s thoughts and emotions, without
necessarily feeling the same emotion (similar to “theory of
mind”). An empathy scale developed by Davis (1983) yields
separate scores for emotional empathy (labeled “emotional
concern”) and cognitive empathy (labled as “perspective tak-
ing”), and some studies have suggested that the gender differ-
ence may be limited to the emotional concern scale (Derntl et
al., 2010). In the same study, Derntl et al. (2010) found that
women showed greater activation than men in several brain
regions, including the amygdala, across a number of empa-
thy-related emotional judgment tasks. Interestingly, they found
this sex difference in the brain despite equal performance by
women and men on the tasks. Schulte-Rüther, Markowitsch,
Shah, Fink, & Piefke (2008) found that women showed greater
activation in the right inferior frontal cortex and superior tem-
poral sulcus, while men showed greater activation of the left
temporoparietal junction, when rating their own and others’
emotion. They interpreted this as greater emotional engagement
on the part of their female participants.
Rueckert and Naybar (2008) utilized a chimeric faces task
(Levy, Heller, Banich, & Burton, 1983) to assess activation of
the right cerebral hemisphere in normal participants. Although
there were no differences in asymmetry found for the chimeric
faces task, they found that right hemisphere activation corre-
lated with self-reported empathy for women, but not for men.
This suggests that women are more likely than men to recruit
similar brain regions for empathy and for judgment of emo-
tional expression.
Although most self-report scales do not differentiate between
cognitive and emotional empathy, an examination of the items
on these questionnaires suggests that they may assess predomi-
nantly emotional empathy. Furthermore, most of the items tend
to focus on negative emotions, such as sadness (e.g. “It makes
me sad to see a lonely stranger in a group”; Mehrabian & Ep-
stein, 1972). If, as has been suggested by a number of studies
(e.g. Allen & Markiewicz Haccoun, 1976; Blier & Blier-Wilson,
1989) women tend to report higher levels of emotion than men,
it’s possible that what appears to be a gender difference in em-
pathy is actually a difference in reported level of emotion. For
example, a high rating to a statement such as “It makes me sad
to see a lonely stranger in a group”, would result in a higher
empathy score, although it could simply be due to a greater
tendency to experience or report sadness in general.
The purpose of the present study was to examine gender dif-
ferences in empathy in greater detail. Specifically, we sought to
determine whether the difference might be due to levels of re-
ported emotion. To do this we developed a new empathy scale
that measured participants’ self-reported emotion for events
that occurred to themselves, as well as to other people. Because
previous studies have suggested that empathy in men and
women may vary depending upon the relationship between
themselves and the target, we also varied this relationship. Par-
ticipants were asked to rate how they would feel if the event
happened to a good friend, and well as how they would feel if it
happened to some one they did not like.
There were 60 participants (36 women and 24 men) who
ranged in age from 19 to 47, with a mean age of 24.5 years. The
mean age for women (24.8 years) did not differ from the mean
age for men (24 years). All participants signed an Informed
Consent form that was approved by the Northeastern Illinois
University (NEIU) Institutional Review Board.
In addition to the Informed Consent form and a short demo-
graphics form, all participants completed the following ques-
Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1983). This
questionnaire consists of 28 statements that inquire about the
thoughts and feelings of individuals in a variety of situations. It
is a self-report questionnaire consisting of four 7-item subscales,
each of which assesses a specific aspect of empathy. Scores for
each item can range from 0 to 4, with a higher score indicating
a greater level of empathy. The The Perspective-Taking (PT)
subscale assesses an understanding of the point of view of oth-
ers (cognitive empathy). The Fantasy (FS) subscale assesses a
physiological arousal to a filmed depiction of fictitious charac-
ters in movies, plays and books. The Empathetic Concern (EC)
subscale assesses concern and sympathy for other people (emo-
tional empathy). The Personal Distress (PD) subscale assesses
feelings of personal anxiety in reaction to the emotions of oth-
ers in tense social settings. The maximum score for each sub-
scale is 28.
NEIU Empathy Scale. This scale was developed specifi-
cally for this study. It is comprised of ten scenarios (see Ap-
pendix). Participants are first asked to read through the scenar-
ios and rate on a Likert scale from 1 to 5 the extent to which
they would feel each of three emotions (happy, sad, and angry;
1 = no emotion, 5 = extreme emotion). The scenarios were
created with the expectation that they would yield an approxi-
mately equal number of happy, sad, and angry responses.
After rating how they would feel for all ten scenarios, par-
ticipants were asked to go through all ten scenarios again and
rate how they (the participant) would feel if each of the scenar-
ios happened to their best friend (of the same gender) and to an
enemy, or a person they do not like (of the same gender). Some
of the scenarios were chosen with the expectation that they
might be likely to yield different emotions depending on
whether they happen to a friend or to an enemy (i.e. getting a
ticket for parking in a handicapped space). All participants were
first asked to rate how they would feel if the scenario happened
to themselves. Half of them were then asked about the friend,
follo wed by enemy , and the oth er half were asked about enemy
followed by friend.
After filling out the Informed Consent and demographics
forms, participants were asked to fill out the IRI, followed by
the NEIU Empathy Scale (half the participants filled them out
in the opposite order).
An ANOVA was conducted with gender as a be-
tween-subjects variable and subscale (EC, PT, PD, FS) as a
repeated measure. There was a main effect of gender, F(1.58) =
7.37, p = .009, η2 = .11. Men (M = 15.48, 95% CI[14.28, 16.67])
scored lower than women (M = 17.20, 95% CI[16.5, 17.90]).
This was modified by a trend toward a gender by subscale in-
teraction, F(3.174) = 2.49, p = .062, η2 = .056. Simple main
effects post-hocs showed that the gender difference was sig-
nificant only for EC (p = .001), and marginally significant for
PD (p = .1).
NEIU Empathy Scale
A composite score for each of the three emotions (happy, sad,
angry) was calculated for each participant under each condition
(self, friend, enemy). Ratings were first analyzed to determine
whether there were any differences in the strength of emotion
reported by men and women. An ANOVA was conducted with
gender as a between-subjects variable. Person (self, friend or
enemy) and emotion (happy, sad, angry) were repeated meas-
ures. There was a main effect of person, F(2.116) = 39.84, p
< .001, η2 = .41. Tukey’s HSD post-hoc analyses showed that
emotional ratings for self were significantly higher than ratings
for either friend or enemy (p < .05). There was also a main
effect of emotion, F(2.116) = 8.30, p < .001, η2 = .12, that was
modified by a person by emotion interaction, F(4.232) = 23.47,
p < .001, η2 = .29. Simple effects post-hoc analyses revealed
that the main effect of person was significant only for sad and
angry (p < .001; see Figure 1). There was also a trend toward an
emotion by gender interaction F(2.116) = 2.57, p = .08, η2 = .04.
due to the fact that women gave higher ratings than men only
for happy and sad (see Figure 2).
Empathy scores were calculated by identifying the predomi-
nant emotion for each participant in each of the ten scenarios.
The predominant emotion was defined as the one that received
the highest rating for the self. The friend empathy score is the
difference between the rating given to the predominant emotion
for self for that particular scenario, and the rating given to the
friend for the same emotion on the same scenario. A composite
friend empathy score was calculated by adding the difference
scores for all ten scenarios. Thus, a higher score indicates a
greater difference between the rating given to the self and the
rating given to the friend, and therefore less empathy. Enemy
empathy scores were calculated in the same manner using rat-
ings given to the enemy. For this analysis the data was dis-
carded for the four men and four women who rated only one
emotion for each scenario. Spearman-Brown split-half reliabil-
ity coefficients were at an acceptable level (r = .80 for both
friend and enem y em p athy scores).
An ANOVA was calculated with these empathy scores as the
dependent variable. Gender was a between-subjects variable
Happy SadAngry
Figure 1.
Mean ratings for each of the three emotions given to the self, friend,
and enemy on the NEIU scale.
Happy SadAngry
Wome n
Figure 2.
Mean ratings given by men and women for each of the three emotions
on the NEIU scale. Error bars indicate the standard error for the gen-
der difference, pooled across emotions.
and person (friend or enemy) was a repeated measure. There
was a main effect of person, F(1.58) = 117.12, p < .001, η2
= .67. Empathy scores were lower (indicating greater empathy)
for friends (M = 10.51, 95% CI[8.51, 12.52]) than for enemies
(M = 22.80, 95% CI[20.44, 25.16]). This was modified by a
gender by person interaction, F(1.58) = 9.22, p = .004, η2 = .14.
Figure 3 shows that, although both men and women showed
greater empathy toward their friends than their enemies, the
difference was greater for women.
Relationship between Scales
Neither empathy scores nor raw ratings on the NEIU scale
correlated significantly with any of the four subscales of the IRI
after a Bonferonni correction was applied. Ratings on the NEIU
scale did correlate with each other: Overall ratings for self cor-
related with both friend (r = .77, p < .001) and enemy ratings (r
= .62, p < .001). These correlations were also significant within
each gender (women: rself,enemy = .63, rself,friend = .72; men:
rself,enemy = .69, rself,friend = .82, all ps <. 001)
Item analysis. Detailed statistics for each of the ten scenar-
ios (mean ratings for men and women for each item, etc.) can
be found online at
These results provide some limited support for gender dif-
ferences in empathy but suggest that these differences are not
ubiquitous, but, rather tend to occur under specific conditions.
While we did replicate the common finding that women score
higher on the IRI, the difference was only significant for EC
(and marginally significant for PD). This is congruent with
some previous studies that utilized the IRI (Derntl et al., 2010;
Yang, Decety, Lee, Chen, & Cheng, 2008). This result suggests
that the gender difference may be limited to emotional empathy,
and raises the possibility that it is due to differences in emo-
tional reactivity. That possibility is also supported by the fact
that, on the NEIU empathy scale, women reported that they
would feel greater happiness and sadness when the scenario
happened to themselves, as well as when it happened to others.
This finding replicates others who have found that women re-
port more intense ratings of happiness and sadness than men,
but report less or equal levels of anger (Allen & Markiewicz
Haccoun, 1976; Blier & Blier-Wilson, 1989).
The results of this study suggest that gender differences in
empathy may reflect, at least in part, differences in emotional
Friend Enemy
Wome n
Figure 3.
Mean empathy scores (difference in ratings given to the self and other
person) for friend and enemy on the NEIU scale. Error bars indicate
the standard error for the gender difference. Note that a greater differ-
ence indicates less empathy.
reactivity. This inference is also supported by the significant
correlation between participants’ ratings for themselves and for
other people. However, in the empathy analyses overall ratings
of emotional level were controlled on the NEIU scale by sub-
tracting the emotional rating for others (friend and enemy) from
that given for the self. Analyses of these scores did not show an
overall gender difference in empathy, but revealed that
women’s level of empathy is more affected by the relationship
they have with the other person; they showed somewhat greater
empathy levels toward friends, but lower levels towards ene-
mies. Although this result has not been reported before, it is
congruent with results from studies of helping behavior. In a
meta-analysis of studies measuring people’s willingness to help
in real-life situations Eagly and Crowly (1986) found that men
were actually significantly more likely to provide aid than
women. However, they pointed out that the vast majority of
these studies involved providing help to a stranger, which
women may find somewhat threatening. Some more recent
studies have found no gender difference in less threatening
situations (e.g. Reysen & Ganz, 2006) or a tendency for women
to give more help when the person receiving the help is a friend
(George, Carroll, Kersnick & Calderon, 1998).
The gender difference in empathy toward friends and ene-
mies found in the present study appears to be at odds with re-
sults reported by Singer et al. (2006). Using fMRI, they found
that women and men showed an equally strong empathic re-
sponse in pain-related areas of the brain when they saw a “fair”
confederate receive shocks. However, only women showed this
response when they watched a confederate they believed had
played a game unfairly receive shocks. There are numerous
methodological differences between the two studies. In the
study by Singer et al. both the fair and unfair confederate were
unknown to the subjects. In the present study subjects were
asked to think of a person who was known to them that they
considered a friend or enemy. Thus, they actually had some
type of relationship and previous interaction with the target. It
is also possible that the vicarious experience of pain differs
from empathy experienced in more complex emotional situa-
Most previous studies of empathy have not specified the tar-
get of the empathy, but have instead assessed it toward some
generalized “other” person. The results of the present study
suggest that the nature of the person to be empathized with is an
important variable to consider. These results and those of other
recent studies suggest that gender differences in empathy are
more variable and context-dependent than has been suggested
by the highly consistent results reported in earlier studies util-
izing self-report. (For further discussion of contextual variables
that may affect empathy, see de Vignemont & Singer, 2006).
Scores on self-report measures may reflect demand characteris-
tics and willingness to admit to feelings of sadness, in addition
to empathy. Of course, other measures of empathy also have
limitations to their internal and external validity. A better un-
derstanding of empathy in general, and gender differences in
particular, will require the utilization of a variety of methods
under a variety of conditions.
Allen, J. G., & Haccoun, D. M. (1976). Sex differences in emotionality:
A multidimensional approach. Human Relations, 29, 711-722.
Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004). The Empathy quotient: An
investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning
autism, and normal sex differences. Journal of Autism and Develop-
mental Disorders, 34, 163-175.
Blier, M. J., & Blier-Wilson, L. A. (1989). Gender differences in
self-rated emoti onal expressiveness. Sex Roles, 21, 287-295.
Chapman, E., Baron-Cohen, S., Auyeung, B., Knickmeyer, R., Taylor,
K., & Hackett, G. (2006). Fetal testosterone and empathy: Evidence
from the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and the “Reading the Mind in the
Eyes” test. Social Neuroscience, 1, 135-148.
Cheng, Y., Chen, C., Lin, C., Chou, K., & Decety, J. (2010). Love hurts:
an fMRI study. Neuroimage, 51, 923-929.
Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy:
Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology, 44, 113-126.
de Vignemont, F., & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: how when
and why? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 435-441.
Derntl, B., Finkelmeyer, A., Eickhoff, S., Kellermann, T., Falkenberg,
D., Schneider, F., & Habel, U. (2010). Multidimensional assess-
ment of empathic abilities: Neural correlates and gender differences.
Psychoneuoendocrinology, 35, 67-82.
Dimberg, U., & Lundquist, L. (1990). Gender differences in facial
reactions to facial expressions. Biological Psychology, 30, 151-159.
Eagly, A. H., & Crowley, M. (1986). Gender and helping behavior: A
meta-analytic review of the social psychological literature. Psycho-
logical Bulletin, 100, 283-308. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.100.3.283
Eisenberg, N., & Lennon, R. (1983). Sex differences in empathy and
related capacities. Psychological Bulletin 94, 100-131.
Fukushima, H., & Hiraki, K. (2006). Perceiving an opponent’s loss:
gender-related differences in the medial-frontal negativity. Social,
Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 1, 149-157.
George, D., Carroll, P., Kersnick, R., & Calderon, K. (1998). Gen-
der-related patterns of helping among friends. Psychology of Women
Quarterly, 22, 685-704. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1998.tb00185.x
Ickes, W., Gesn, P. R., & Graham, T. (2000). Gender differences in
empathic accuracy: Differential ability or differential motivation?
Personal Relationships, 7, 95-109.
Lamm, C., Decety, J., & Singer, T. (2011). Meta-analytic evidence for
common and distinct neural networks associated with directly ex-
perienced pain and empathy for pain. NeuroImage, 54, 2492-2502.
Levy, J., Heller, W., Banich, M.T., & Burton, L.A. (1983). Asymmetry
of perception in free viewing of chimeric faces. Brain and Cognition,
2, 404-419. doi:10.1016/0278-2626(83)90021-0
Mehrabian, A., & Epstein, N. (1972). A measure of emotional empathy.
Journal of Personality, 40, 525-543.
Mehrabian, A., Young, A. L., & Sato, S. (1988). Emotional empathy
and associated individual differences. Current Psychology: Research
& Reviews, 7, 221-240. doi:10.1007/BF02686670
Reysen, S. & Ganz, E. (2006). Gender differences in helping in six U.S.
cities. North American Journal of Psychology, 8, 63-68.
Rueckert, L., & Naybar, N. (2008). Gender differences in empathy: The
role of the right hemisphere. Brain and Cognition, 67, 162-167.
Schulte-Rüther, M., Markowitsch, H. J., Shah, N. J., Fink, G. R., &
Piefke, M. (2008). Gender differences in brain networks supporting
empathy. NeuroImage, 42, 393-403.
Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J. P., Stephan, K. E., Dolan, R. J.,
& Frith, C. D. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by
the perceived fairness of ot h e rs. Nature, 439, 466-469.
Yang, C., Decety, J., Lee, S., Chen, C., & Cheng, Y. (2009). Gender
differences in the mu rhythm during empathy for pain: An electro-
encephalographic study. Brain Research, 1251, 176-184.
NEIU Emotional Response Questionnaire
The following 10 scenarios are to be used with each of the
next 3 answer sheets. Please read the instructions at the top of
each answer sheet carefully, because they are all different.
1) You won $5,000 in the lottery.
2) You bought a brand new pair of shoes two days ago. To-
day it started pouring rain as you were walking to the store and
your shoes were ruined.
3) Your favorite team is going to the playoffs. You’ve got
tickets. However, you can’t get off work, and so will not be
able to go.
4) You put money in to a vending machine to buy a candy
bar, but the machine is broken so you lose your money.
5) You put money in to a vending machine to buy a candy
bar. The machine malfunctions and gives you your money back,
as well as giving you the candy bar.
6) You go to the grocery store to buy just one item. But you
can’t find any place to park legally, so you park in the handi-
capped space. When you come back 10 minutes later you have
received a parking ticket.
7) You’ve been waiting in line for an hour to get tickets to a
movie you really want to see. Just as you get up to the ticket
window, they announce that they are sold out.
8) You’re driving to work and you’re late, so you start
driving very fast. You accidentally run over a squirrel and kill
9) You tried out for a city-wide talent show and made it to
the top five finalists.
10) As you’re walking down the street a car drives by very
fast through a puddle and splashes water all over you.