Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Empathy Gets the Girl

Boys who display high cognitive empathy levels – the capacity to comprehend the emotions of another person – attract an average of 1.8 more female friendships than low empathy counterparts, according to a study of almost 2000 Year 10 students in Queensland and NSW published in the Journal of Personality (http://tinyurl.com/zdgmnkj).

The study, led by Prof Joseph Ciarrochi of the Australian Catholic University, is the first to examine the extent that adolescent males and females select empathetic classmates as friends. It found that girls are more likely to nominate empathetic boys as friends.

In contrast, girls with empathetic qualities “did not attract a greater number of opposite sex friends”. Despite this, these girls 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 said. “Regardless of the quantity of friendship nominations, empathy was linked to more supportive friendships for both males and females.”

The researchers asked students to nominate up to five of their closest male and five closest female friends in the same year. Students were asked to respond to statements such as “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”.

Students made selections from the following: “My close friends…”, “give me advice,” “help me when I need it,” “spend time with me when I’m lonely,” “accept me when I make a mistake,” “calm me down when I’m nervous about something,” “understand my feelings,” and “explain things when I’m confused”.

Ciarrochi said: “Friends are essential to positive adolescent development. 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.

“This research suggests it is critical to identify and teach young people the skills they need to develop supportive friendships. To that end, our study provides a contextual understanding of the role of empathy in selecting and maintaining friendships.”