A new study just released by the University of Bath reports women are much better than men at “mind-reading.”
To be clear, we’re not actually talking about telepathy here. Study authors explain that women are much more adept than men at inferring and understanding what others are thinking – without that person having to say it out loud. Mind-reading, as defined by researchers, isn’t necessarily empathy either.
“To understand this psychological process, we needed to separate mind-reading from empathy. Mind-reading refers to understanding what other people are thinking, whereas empathy is all about understanding what others are feeling. The difference might seem subtle but is critically important and involves very different brain networks,” explains senior study author Dr. Punit Shah, leading expert on social cognitive processing at the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology, in a release.
“By focusing carefully on measuring mind-reading, without confusing it with empathy, we are confident that we have just measured mind-reading. And, when doing this, we consistently find that females reported greater mind-reading abilities than their male counterparts,” he adds.
It isn’t something we all consciously consider very often, but picking up on subtle behavioral cues such as changes in tone of voice or eye movements is a pretty standard aspect of social interactions. We’ve all left a conversation feeling like more is going on than what was actually said. Sometimes those inclinations are accurate and other times we’re way off base. This research indicates women are right in these instances much more often than men.
Even before gender differences come into play, “mind-reading” efficiency varies greatly from person to person. While you may immediately think someone is lying to you, someone else may interpret those words as genuine. Similarly, sarcastic comments often go right over certain peoples’ heads.
“Much of how we communicate relies on our understanding of what others are thinking, yet this is a surprisingly complex process that not everyone can do,” Dr. Shah notes.
A real lack of thought-inferring abilities can make everyday life much more challenging. On that note, one of the main factors that motivated researchers to conduct this research was how much trouble many people with autism have with mind-reading. Autistic individuals usually don’t pick up on subtle behavioral changes very well, which makes navigating social situations that much harder.
So, to recognize individuals in need of help in this area more quickly the research team developed a simple, four-step test using data on both autistic and non-autistic individuals living in the United States and the United Kingdom. Subsequent trials held using that test led to two main conclusions. The first was that women are better at mind-reading than men, and the second was a confirmation that the majority of autistic individuals struggle with this skill.
“This new test, which takes under a minute to complete, has important utility in clinical settings. It is not always obvious if someone is experiencing difficulties understanding and responding to others – and many people have learnt techniques which can reduce the appearance of social difficulties, even though these remain,” comments lead study researcher Rachel Clutterbuck.
The full study can be found here, published in Psychological Assessment.