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1 October 2014
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Sex ID

Empathising and systemising

You may be surprised to learn that there are 412 different human emotions. But if you're a woman this may be obvious.

A woman's eye
The Sex ID eyes task asks you to match someone's eyes with their mood.

Women are said to be better at distinguishing between the fleeting expressions that cross our faces every day. According to Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University, this is because empathy comes naturally to women while men are wired to understand how things work.

Men are typically systemisers. That is they're better at investigating how a system works. They like to get deeply involved in activities such as car repair, computing or building up an extensive music collection.

On average women are empathisers. They are better at accurately guessing other people's emotions and responding appropriately. They would be more likely to comfort you in a time of crisis.

The Sex ID test asked questions about people's enjoyment of reading maps, caring for other people, talking about politics and how truthful they are to their friends. People's answers reveal whether they have a female 'empathising brain' or a male 'systemising brain'. Baron-Cohen has shaped his theory by using similar tests.

Baron-Cohen isn't saying that one sex can do things that the other cannot. He's saying that on average there are significant differences between the sexes – one tends to be more empathic and the other more systematic.

A man and a woman
A BBC One television series Secrets of the Sexes explores brain sex differences.

However, many men and women have a brain that differs from their sex. Baron-Cohen's laboratory has found that about 17% of men have a female 'empathising brain' and 17% of women have a male 'systemising brain'.

A significant number of people have a 'balanced brain' which is equally good (or bad) at both empathising and systemising.

Studies of human behaviour support Baron-Cohen's theory. For example, it has been found that baby girls look longer at faces, particularly people's eyes while boys are more likely to look at inanimate objects.

Some scientists believe that there may be an evolutionary explanation of empathising and systemising.

In prehistoric times, a man's vision may have been more narrowly focussed and he would have to have been good at judging space and distance in order to be a good hunter. These skills could be related to the ability to focus on the laws governing a system. Women, on the other hand, spent more time foraging for food and watching over their children. These jobs would require wide vision and the ability to differentiate nuances of tone – skills that would help them sense another person's emotions. It may sound crude and there's no scientific proof, but it's plausible.

Systemising and autism

Baron-Cohen believes that an 'extreme male brain', one that is very good at systemising but very poor at empathising, may lead to the condition known as autism, which affects more men than women.

Exposure to abnormally high levels of testosterone has been linked to autism. This is what Baron-Cohen terms "the extreme male brain theory of autism". Autistics also had very low digit ratios (suggesting high levels of testosterone).

The Sex ID test is not detailed enough to diagnose autism, only detailed examination by a qualified doctor can do that. If you're concerned, contact your GP.

Empathy and verbal abilities

In the Sex ID survey we also tested people's verbal fluency by asking them to list as many words possible that related to the terms 'grey' and 'happy. Women have regularly scored higher than men in scientific studies using similar tasks.

There is no evidence of vocabulary sizes differing between men and women, but women have demonstrated the ability to recall more related words under a time constraint.

Women's verbal skills appear to begin early in life. Studies of children's behaviour have found that girls speak earlier, have larger vocabularies and are better at spelling and reading.

Research has also shown that young girls are less likely than boys to use dominant, imperative language "Stop it," "Don't do that," instead preferring to say "Would you mind not doing that?"

Baron-Cohen suggests that because women tend to be better empathisers, the language they use is more emotive. For example, if a women disagrees with someone, she would often soften the blow by saying "You're right, but maybe it could be...". Whereas a man's response is more likely to be "I'm sorry but you're wrong," or even more direct "You're wrong."

The Sex ID test was originally an online experiment. We've stopped collecting data now and many of the questions have been removed from the test, but we've kept the fun stuff!

Back to your results

Take the Sex ID test

Find out about the BBC One television series Secrets of the Sexes

Read about the Sex ID experiment

Sex ID frequently asked questions

Other Sex ID articles:

Brain sex
Spatial tests
Facial attractiveness

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