Are Girls More Empathetic Than Boys?

Girls More Empathetic Than Boys Header
Karen Thierry, Ph.D. Director of Research
By Karen Thierry, Ph.D. Director of Research Apr 23, 2018

Research shows that females tend to have higher levels of empathy than males. Our research team was interested in whether the same was true for elementary school students and whether there was anything we could do to change this trajectory by intervening at a young age.

Additional research shows that gratitude is associated with empathy. Thus, our team explored whether an intentional gratitude practice would increase third graders’ empathy, and whether this effect would depend on the child’s gender.

We asked third grade students to keep a gratitude journal. Each day, students recorded three things for which they were grateful. (A control group did a goal-setting activity.) As the study went on, we learned that students needed more support with their gratitude lists, as they were consistently writing simple things such as, “My mom” or, “Food”. During the second year of the study, teachers asked students questions such as, “What would life be like for people who do not have that benefit?” or “How did someone help you? What did they have to give up to help you?” Student responses were much more substantial, such as one student who wrote, “I am grateful for my house because it is warm. Some kids do not have houses and they are probably sad in the winter because they are cold.” Another student wrote, “I am grateful for my mom, because she always makes me feel better when I have a nightmare and helps me go back to sleep. She gives up her own sleep to comfort me.”

Again, we were looking for whether this gratitude journal activity increased a child’s empathy levels. What we found was that empathy levels for students in the gratitude group did increase compared to the control group – but only for girls.

Girls in the research study did increase their empathy levels through a gratitude practice when they received feedback and journaling tips, but empathy remained consistent for boys.

Now our research team is wondering how teachers can find ways to help both boys and girls develop empathy. We know that it’s not enough to simply keep a gratitude journal, and that students also need other ways to engage in perspective taking.

A few years ago, I was inspired by the work of Ron Berger when he spoke at our Changing the Odds Conference. His work is called Expeditionary Learning. It uses hands-on, collaborative projects that are integrated into classroom instruction, with a consistent focus on real-world applications. I recall an example he shared about students who wanted to help the homeless. The students decided that their first step would be to interview the homeless and learn their story, which helped inform ways to meaningfully support them, rather than assuming what type of support they would need.

While we know from general research that females tend to have higher levels of empathy, we also know that this doesn’t have to be true. Boys can learn perspective taking, gratitude and empathy. My hope is that teachers reading this know that boys can learn these skills, but that the traditional methods may not work for boys. In the case of empathy, one size does not fit all. What works for girls may not work for boys. Teachers should be prepared to find new ways to increase perspective taking, and be thoughtful about different ways to engage both boys and girls in developing these skills. 

©2018 Momentous Institute
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