Newswise — Men and women attracted to men are more empathetic than men and women attracted to women, according to a new study from the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa. “People attracted to a particular gender, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual, have common social tools, and thus exhibit the same level of empathy,” said Professor Simone Shamay-Tsoory of the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa who conducted the study.
Empathy is a key mechanism for understanding the other, helping us to feel the emotions of someone distinct from ourselves, identify with his or her trials, and be aware of the need to offer assistance. Sociologists claim that empathy plays an important role in the development of human society in that it contributes to peoples’ understanding of others and causes them to take the latter’s feelings into account. Behavioral and brain studies show that activities related to empathy are regulated differently in men and women based on preferences that are acquired through social interaction and which use different areas of the brain. According to Professor Shamay-Tsoori, past studies have demonstrated that women are superior in tasks involving empathy, such as non-verbal communication and attention to changes in tone of voice and facial expression.
In the current study, recently published in Brain Research, conducted by Professor Shamay-Tsoori along with Dr. Daniel Perry from the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, Kobie Walder from the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa, and Professor Talma Hendler from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the researchers sought to examine the differences in empathic response between subjects who are attracted to men compared to those attracted to women. A total of 52 subjects were divided into two groups according to their sexual orientation. While the subjects underwent fMRI scans, they were shown different emotional situations, so that the researchers could examine how the subjects feel when they personally experience the situation or when the situation occurs to someone else.
The study revealed that sexual orientation is related to the level of empathy: based on self-reporting, heterosexual women showed the highest level of empathy, followed by gay men, then lesbian women, and finally heterosexual men.
A similar picture arose from analysis of brain activity which was also conducted. During the empathic task, it was found that, among other things, the area of the TPJ (Temporal Parietal Junction) related to the perception of the other, was more active in subjects attracted to men compared to those attracted to women.
“The results of the research suggest that differences in empathy between people are monitored by a person’s sexual preference. Sexual attraction determines the person with whom we have a close and intimate relationship, so it is reasonable that the gender of the person to whom we are attracted will affect our ability to empathize,” concluded Professor Shamay-Tsoori.