Pink Brains, Blue Brains

Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, right? Maybe not. Research suggests these differences are overstated.

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

Most of us think women’s brains are geared for empathy while men’s brains play dead when they have to interpret and process emotions. But the truth is, in fact, quite a bit messier—despite what some of the research claims.

The ability to feel what others feel and intuit their emotions from their body language, tone of voice, and other indirect clues is not only something that women are supposedly better at than men, but one that reflects (some researchers contend) hardwired sex-based differences in the brain. Among the cadre of scientists who study this, the empathy gap is considered strong evidence for “the essential difference” between female and male brains, namely, that female brains are good at sympathizing and male brains at using logical thinking to classify and analyze the world.

Here’s the first mess: measures of empathy are as hard to pin down as a puddle of mercury. When questions are obviously about empathy (can you easily tell if someone is unhappy but putting on a brave face?), women score themselves much higher than men do. But when researchers ditch self-report questionnaires and put subjects in situations that actually test their empathizing and logic abilities, men and women score about equally