Empathy and Stress – Women Are the Stronger Sex

I learned many of life’s great lessons while watching Audrey Hepburn movies with my grandmother. To this day, I cannot hear the word “empathy” without being reminded of the first time I heard that word in the movie Funny Face. Empathy is difficult to study, owing to its many dimensions and facets, but it is essential to human interaction. And new evidence suggests that women may be better at it than men.

In the movie, Audrey Hepburn plays Jo, a shy bookkeeper who wants to spend her days studying the theories of empathicalism. When Fred Astaire (as Dick Avery) asks her about her philosophy, she explains: “Sympathy is to understand what someone feels; empathy is to project your imagination so that you can actually feel what the other person is feeling; you put yourself in the other person’s place.”

Recently, researchers examined empathy in males and females under stressful conditions. When the men were stressed, they were less able to engage in socially appropriate and empathetic interactions with other people; men became more egocentric when stressed. Women, on the other hand, were more empathetic toward others when they themselves were under stress.

For the study, which is published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, the participants were placed in moderately stressful situations in a laboratory, including speaking in public with little preparation or performing mental arithmetic tasks, that mimicked the type of stress humans can encounter on a daily basis. Once stressed, the participants were asked to imitate movements, recognize emotions, or make a judgment about the perspective of another person. Stress worsened the men’s performances in all three areas, but the women’s scores improved.

Stress seems problematic when we are acutely dealing with a challenging situation, but stress actually has a positive function: it makes us recruit additional resources when faced with a difficult situation. We can either reduce the internal load of the stress or seek external support to cope with the stress. The authors of the current study suggest that the easiest response to stress is to become more egocentric and self-centered, which reduces the internal emotional and cognitive workload. And, the more egocentric a person is, the less empathetic he or she becomes.

The fact that women were more empathetic when stressed might be explained in two ways (though neither theory has been proven). First, women may have a keen understanding that the better they interact with other people, the more external support they receive. Therefore, women are more likely to expend emotional energy when interacting with other people and apply appropriate social strategies, even when they are stressed – something akin to catching more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Additionally, the hormone oxytocin may play a role in social behaviors. We already know that oxytocin is important in relationship building, pair bonding, and maternal behaviors, but in one study, under stressful conditions, women had higher levels of oxytocin than men.

Empathy involves emotional, autonomic, cognitive, and regulatory processes. Some information is known about which regions of the brain are involved in empathy, but the timing and sequencing of the activities are unclear. Empathy could even be partly attributed to misinterpretation of perceptual information. People with mental illness and those who have suffered stroke or other brain injury can lose some empathetic abilities. It is clear that we do not understand the “how” of empathy, but the “why” and “what” are pretty obvious. Empathy is a necessary part of human interaction. In order to work and socialize and cooperate with other people, we must be able, at least sometimes, to put ourselves in their shoes – take on their perspective, feel what they feel, and act the way they act. Sometimes, we will be stressed, but we still need to do it. (Men – listen up!)

This current study provides no direction for how to use these findings to improve our own social interaction; it is merely a report of interesting results that remind us of the differences between men and women when it comes to what the professionals call “prosocial behavior.” That is, empathy is just one of the behaviors in which we need to engage to benefit other people and society at large, and women seem to have the upper hand in this case.


Balconi M, & Bortolotti A (2012). Empathy in cooperative versus non-cooperative situations: the contribution of self-report measures and autonomic responses. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 37 (3), 161-9 PMID: 22419515

Cowan DG, Vanman EJ, & Nielsen M (2014). Motivated empathy: The mechanics of the empathic gaze. Cognition & emotion PMID: 24568562

Mahayana IT, Banissy MJ, Chen CY, Walsh V, Juan CH, & Muggleton NG (2014). Motor empathy is a consequence of misattribution of sensory information in observers. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 24567713

Thirioux B, Mercier MR, Blanke O, & Berthoz A (2014). The cognitive and neural time course of empathy and sympathy: An electrical neuroimaging study on self-other interaction. Neuroscience PMID: 24583040

Tomova, L., von Dawans, B., Heinrichs, M., Silani, G., & Lamm, C. (2014). Is stress affecting our ability to tune into others? Evidence for gender differences in the effects of stress on self-other distinction Psychoneuroendocrinology, 43, 95-104 DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.02.006

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Image via Lorimer Images / Shutterstock.

  • onergk69

    Jennifer & others,

    Fascinating topic & points.

    In all my courses & training modules, I discuss gender competency. In sociology & cultural anthropology, evidence suggests that, across the globe, W are viewed as more prosocial than M. They are more cooperative than competitive. They possess earlier & a stronger “relational self”. W’s communication patterns tend to “rapport”; while we M are “report”.

    W are more comfortable discussing internal matters; while we M prefer external affairs. Words & emotions are the primary tools of W. Actions are are our primary tools. W are more tuned to non-verbals than we are.

    H. Gardner & others propose the notion of multiple IQ’s. Two of which are intrapersonal(insight) & interpersonal(empathy). Combined they are considered EIQ.

    And finally, empathy seems highly connected to “mirror” neurons.

    Thanks for this article!


  • Stephanie Ginter

    Really fascinating read! Thank you for sharing! As a customer service enthusiast and trainer, this is a really important concept. Although the immediate response might be one way or the other, it’s great to raise awareness about it. Employees are often faced with stressful customer service situations, so being aware of the ego creeping in can be a very valuable personal reflection.

    Very nice – thanks again!

  • Megan Kleinman

    Oxytocin is released when breastfeeding. I have read that it helps mothers relax, which makes sense if you have breast fed. It can be difficult to stay awake. If it releases when stressed, too, then maybe it’s what keeps mothers from throwing a screaming child out the window. It is impressive how mothers always know exactly what their child wants, and the increase of empathy may relate to taking care of a child. Though, this is generalized. I would not suggest that lack of oxytocin causes post partum or is the only relation to bonding with your child. So far, age, experiences, mentors, stress, body chemicals, help from others, etc. seem to weigh in on how bonding happens (if it happens). Still, this may be one chemical which correlates with a woman raising a baby. Very very interesting. Thanks for giving me something interesting to think about today!

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.

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